Museums, Critique, Aesthetics

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An essay exploring institutional critique in the 21st century submitted as part of my Master's in Fine Art with Learning and Teaching in HE at Kingston University 20110.


<p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>Museums, Critique, AestheticsEntrance Is the term institutional critique consigned to art history or is it still a relevant contemporary practice? Current literature suggests that a new phase of institutional critique has emerged which goes beyond the earlier phases of the 1970s and the 1990s.1 But can institutional critique exist when it has been entirely co-opted by the new self-critical, reflexive museum, making it irrelevant for artists today? Could the return to a DIY, junk aesthetic, as exemplified by the exhibition Unmonumental in New York in 2007, be read as a critique of the corporatized, globalized institution? Or perhaps the work of contemporary artists such as Rachel Harrison and Urs Fischer who recycle, imitate and violate the architecture of the gallery space, could be seen as new practices of institutional critique sampling the likes of Michael Asher. Maybe we have entered a phase where artists and audiences alike have tired of critical art and art as idea and have embraced a new realm of the aesthetic. On the other hand, perhaps our audience and education-fixated institutions and museums, those of the blockbuster show, are ripe for a renewed critique? Can the aesthetic provide a new politics in art? Foyer The late 1960s saw political upheaval and the radicalization of1</p> <p>See for example G. Raunig, &amp; G. Ray, (eds), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, Mayfly, London. 2009 and J.C.Welchman (ed), Institutional Critique and After: Volume 2 of the SoCCAS symposia, JRP/Ringier, Zurich, 2006 and N. Mntman, (ed) Art and its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations, Black Dog Publishing Ltd. London, 2006.</p> <p>1</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>a generation dissatisfied with the bourgeois status quo. This radicalism was not isolated to politics. During this period we see a diversification of art practices, from performance and happenings to conceptual and land art. These practices mark a move away from the tradition of the studio and gallery, a new relationship with audience and a radical questioning of the art object. In their 1968 essay on the dematerialization of art Lippard and Chandler state that the current ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively may result in the objects becoming wholly obsolete.2</p> <p>This would enable art to stand outside commodity culture and be valued in its own terms. When works of art, like words, are signs that convey ideas, they are not things in themselves but symbols or representatives of things. Such a work is a medium rather than an end in itself.3 Alberro summarises conceptual art thus:The conceptual in art means an expanded critique of the cohesiveness and materiality of the art object, a growing wariness toward definitions of artistic practices as purely visual, a fusion of the work with site and context of display, and an increased emphasis on the possibilities of publicness and distribution.4</p> <p>It is at this politically radical, anti-aesthetic juncture that institutional critique emerged. Buchloh argues that this decimation of the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience was the moment that artists such as Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers</p> <p>2</p> <p>L.Lippard &amp; J. Chandler, The Dematerialization of Art in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, A. Alberro &amp; B. Stimson, (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 1999, p. 46. 3 ibid., p. 49. 4 A. Alberro, Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977 in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology A. Alberro and B. Stimson, (eds) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England. 1999, p. xvii.</p> <p>2</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>turned</p> <p>their</p> <p>attentions</p> <p>to</p> <p>the</p> <p>ideological</p> <p>apparatus</p> <p>of</p> <p>the</p> <p>institution.5 Broodthaers, suggested that the contextual definition and syntagmatic construction of the work of art had obviously been initiated by Duchamps readymade model first of all.6 Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, Michael Asher and Hans Haacke are often cited as the first proponents of institutional critique. Through their work they exposed the structural and ideological mechanisms of the gallery and the museum. Their aim was to oppose, subvert or break out of rigid institutional frameworks.7</p> <p>Gallery In his mid-seventies collection of essays Inside the White Cube, Brian ODoherty unpicks the history of modern art in relation to its institutions, with the white cube positioned as its aesthetic and ideological zenith. For ODoherty the gallery is a highly controlled, sealed space, unshadowed, white, clean, artificial. The ungrubby surfaces are continuous, never breached by windows there must be no outside world - much like the institutional architectures of the church, courtroom or laboratory.8 ODoherty recognises that the gallery wall is a far-from-neutral zone that it participates in the art rather than acts as a passive support. For ODoherty, the story of5</p> <p>B.H.D. Buchloh, Conceptual Art 1962-1969 in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, A. Alberro and B. Stimson, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 1999, pp. 532-533. 6 ibid., p. 529. 7 G. Raunig, and G. Ray, (eds), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, Mayfly, London, 2009, p. xv 8 B. ODoherty, Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (expanded edition), University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1976 &amp; 1986, p. 14.</p> <p>3</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>modernism has resulted in the context of art, i.e. the gallery, becoming more important than the art itself. In his 1972 essay Cultural Confinement, Robert Smithson likens the museum to an asylum or jail; both institutions with wards and cells in other words neutral rooms called galleries.9 The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society. The art object then, becomes entirely neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized as it is ready to be consumed by society.10 Smithsons comparison of the museum to a graveyard echoes Adornos suggestion that museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.11 ODoherty suggests that time stands still in this most static and separate of spaces, this eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.12 For Smithson, this hegemonic, symbolic, white cube served to obfuscate the relationship of objects to time and to audience. It is in this climate that Michael Asher opened up the entire existing exhibition space as an area for consideration.13 For his exhibition at the Toselli Gallery in Milan in 1973, the walls and ceiling were sandblasted, revealing the raw building materials underneath numerous layers of white paint. For his exhibition in the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974 he removed the white partition wall that separated the viewing space from the office space,9</p> <p>R. Smithson, Cultural Confinement in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. C. Harrison and P. Wood (eds), Blacklwell, Oxford UK, Cambridge, USA, 1992, p. 947. 10 ibid., p. 947. 11 T. Adorno, Valry Proust Museum, in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Sherry Weber, Neville Spearman, London, 1967, p. 175. 12 ODoherty, op. cit., p. 15. 13 A. Rorimer, Michael Asher: Context as Content in InterReview, [accessed 24/06/2010]</p> <p>4</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>simultaneously</p> <p>breaching</p> <p>the</p> <p>white</p> <p>cube</p> <p>and</p> <p>exposing</p> <p>the</p> <p>commercial foundations of the gallery. Daniel Burens site-specific, systematized striped paintings echoed the architecture of the gallery in order to examine and expose the work of arts affiliation with its external surroundings.14 Hans Haacke incorporated, the commodity structure [of the museum] directly into the conception of the work and into the elements of its presentation.15 In his 1974 work for PROJEKT 74 Haacke proposed to re-present Manets painting Bunch of Asparagus along with a record of its lineage, linking it to a Nazi donor. Haackes work, censored by the Wallraf-RichartzMuseum in Cologne, reflected on the museums collecting practices by raising questions about exactly how the objects in the museum get there.16 Broodthaers conceptual Museum of Modern Art, The Department of Eagles displayed in the Kunsthalle Dsseldorf in 1972 consisted of vitrines containing diverse representations of eagles, produced in art, craft, or commercial contexts.17 These various symbols of imperial might that, according to a series of signs were not works of art, implied that museums obscure the ideological functioning of images via the imposition of spurious value judgments or taxonomies.18 Subsequent incarnations of institutional critique that emerged in the late 1980s and 90s often investigated the formation of identity by the museum and unpicked institutions inherent value systems.14</p> <p>A. Rorimer, Questioning the Structure: The Museum Context as Content in Art apart: Art Institutions and Ideology across England and North America, Marcia Pointon (ed), Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994, p. 254. 15 B.H.D. Buchloh, Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art in Art After Conceptual Art, A. Aberro and S. Buchman (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2006, p. 35. 16 M. Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, p. 169. 17 D. Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945-2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, New York, USA, 2000, p. 165. 18 Ibid., p.165.</p> <p>5</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>Fred Wilsons 1992 artwork, Mining the Museum, rearranged existing exhibits at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. He both followed and subverted museum categorization to reveal institutionalized racism.19 Andrea Frasers lecture/tour Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk was performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989. The tour served to highlight gender and class relations inherent in the structures and histories of art organizations.20 Similarly, Mark Dions work is critical of the official voice of the museum. In his 1999 work Tate Thames Dig, Dion collected flotsam from the banks of the Thames, classified it and displayed it unlabeled in a, cabinet of curiosities in the Tate. This work questioned the value attached to what are essentially discarded objects in museums, as well as empowered the visitor to write their own history of the object. Gallery - New Extension In recent decades, perhaps as a result of these critical art practices, museums and art institutions have evolved. In 2003, Judith Stein writes of the changes made to the Maryland Historical Society apropos of Wilsons Mining the Museum:The MacArthur Foundation named Fred Wilson a Fellow in 1999. The 160 year old Maryland Historical Society is today poised to re-open its greatly expanded and renovated facilities. Director Dennis Fiori looks back with pride at the broad legacy of Wilsons exhibition, which prodded his museum to become a more open and broad-based institution. Their current show, Whats it to You?: Black History is American History, grew directly from their experience of working with Wilson. Today19 20</p> <p>Buskirk, op. cit., p. 163. Philadelphia Museum of Art, [accessed 25/06/2010],</p> <p>6</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>the Society has five minorities and 10 women on their board, a significantly higher proportion than a decade ago. 21</p> <p>As we see above, the re-interpretation of collections to reflect gender and post-colonial discourses has become common-place. Curators are aware that there is always a subtext involved in the placement of (specific, historic) objects in (specific, historic) spaces. Simon Sheikh suggests (after Buchloh and Fraser) that the practice of institutional critique and analysis has shifted from artists to curators and critics22. He writes:[] current institutional-critical discussions seem</p> <p>predominantly propagated by curators and directors of the very same institutions, and they are usually opting for rather than against them. That is, they are not an effort to oppose or even destroy the institution, but rather to modify and solidify it. The institution is not only a problem, but also a solution!23</p> <p>Not only have museums and art institutions become critical and reflective in terms of their collection and purpose but recent decades have also seen a paradigm change in the architecture of the museum. Spaces sought by artists as alternative to the white cube and the institution have been adopted by organisations such as the Tate. All but gone is the sealed, neutral white space of the twentieth century and in are the warehouse and post-industrial monoliths such as Tate Modern, not to mention sought after new architectural21</p> <p>commissions.</p> <p>In</p> <p>these</p> <p>new</p> <p>destination</p> <p>spaces</p> <p>Stein, Judith, Sins of Omission: Fred Wilsons Mining the Museum. Slought, [accessed 25/06/2010] 22 S. Sheikh, Notes on Institutional Critique in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, G. Raunig and G. Ray (eds), Mayfly, London, 2006, p. 31. 23 ibid., p. 30.</p> <p>7</p> <p>Sophie Barr K0934283 Museums, Critique, Aesthetics June 2010</p> <p>windows to the outside world are commonplace, visitors are encouraged to browse the bookshop and eat in the caf. This mausoleum if not gone, is certainly eroded. Iwona Blazwick, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery writes, the twenty-first century art institution is drawing on the legacy of artists and alternative spaces to metamorphose from dead repository to vital cultural resource.24 She goes on to cite ODoherty who examines how artists in the late sixties and seventies, suspicious of the ideology of the institution made site-specific, temporary, non-purchasable work that could not be co-opted by the institution. These practices have not proved impervious to the gallerys assimilative appetite.25 The institution has found ways in which to display the undisplayable as well as find markets for it. Despite this apparent paradox Blazwick sees artists critical practices as an advantage to the museum:Through objects, environments and actions, artists have proposed a historical and political understanding of the aesthetics of space and situation This intellectual energy has percolated through western institutions to effect a radical transformation.26</p> <p>Sheikh suggests that institutional critique has been totally coopted by institutions and has made institutional critique as a critical method completely obsolete.27 Welchman asks, could it be that there is something delusional in practices that are so attached to deconstructing the apparatuses of the museum mostly...</p>