The institution of art is articulated through dominant forms of art practice, discourse, pedagogy, modes of display, dissemination and reception. The institution of art produces artists as well as museums, archives, galleries, markets, journals, art schools and audiences. These institutions undergo paradigm shifts in response to the new territories explored and established by artists, but they also respond to shifts in the production of knowledge and shifts in society as a whole. These institutional paradigm shifts are then neatly historicised as shifts of the entire chaotic and asynchronous field of art. However, what changes during these revolutions is not so much the work of the artists, but the practice of institutions. Anticipating Jacques Ranciere’s “regimes” of art, Bürger points out that “periodization in the development of art must be looked for in the sphere of art as institution, not in the sphere of the transformation of the content of individual works” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 31). For example, art institutions recuperate the precedents set by artists in the 1960s and 1970s, some of these were singular practices, marginalised and trivialised at the time, others were very particular to their location. They were experimental and critical practices, they were purportedly dematerialised, critical of the fetishism and commodification of art, critical of the institution of art, critical of the primacy of the visual, critical of authorial authority, critical of the elitism and exclusivity of art, critical of the spectacle and critical of representation. These repudiated practices are subsequently vindicated by assimilation into “art’s ontological norm” (Deutsche, 1986, p. 20), historicised into coherent movements and captured by the institutions. Art institutions, which lag behind the times and avoid controversy because they are inherently conservative, nevertheless become identified through association with the practices they have recuperated. Institutions furthermore appropriate artistic strategies by making them the subject of themed exhibitions, panel discussions, conferences, talks and workshops.

These institutional shifts have a decisive and broad impact on emerging practices because they always represent the current status of art. They define the programme of museum and exhibition displays and practices. They define the criteria for entry into art schools and the curricula and structure of art schools. Along with government policies, they define the criteria for public funding of art production and dissemination. They define art as such, retroactively, until the next shift.

In the intermediate periods, artists have consistently since the end of the nineteenth century expressed their disagreement with the dominant institutional practices that claim to represent them. Artists’ critiques of the institution have taken the form of non-participation, strike, activist demonstration and alternative institutions. More significantly, artists have incorporated their critique into their own work with strategies of evasion, including resistance to the art object, to theorisation, to authorship, to genius and the cult of the celebrity artist etc. And the cycle begins anew. Since the avant-garde initiated a critique of the institution, artists have elaborated countless forms of institutional critique.

According to Boris Groys however, “artists working after the emergence of the modern museum know (in spite of all their protests and resentments) that they are working primarily for museum collections […] These artists know from the outset that they will be collected—and they actually want to be collected” (Groys, 2002). A deeply entrenched ambivalence thus characterises artists’ regard for institutions of art.

It certainly seems to be the case that many contemporary artists have a lightly diffident but strangely enmeshed relation to art institutions, which, in turn, grant them almost unlimited permission for their ambivalence. (Welchman, 2006, p. 14)

Whereas artists continue to stage exhibitions and events in non-art spaces, artists without broad visibility in the art world cannot participate in the competitive arena of contemporary art. Museums incorporate the studio and together with art journals, they set the themes for current art debates. Institutions select, display and promote art; they establish practices and perceptions of art. Institutions organise, fund and promote exhibitions, competitions, discussions, debates and exchanges between artists, intellectuals and the public. Auction houses, biennials and art foundations establish systems of value and systems of circulation. Museums and galleries, according to Dave Beech, “do not only threaten practices, they also sustain them” (Beech, 2006, p. 10). Indeed, what would art be without institutions?

One can scarcely imagine art without museums, art schools, galleries and myriad other institutions that define not only the discursive field of art, but the productive field as well. There is scarcely an aspect of artistic practice and identity that does not now depend on one or more institutions for its articulation and legitimisation. Pierre Bourdieu discerns three levels of institutionalisation: (1) the institutionalisation of the aesthetic gaze as a pure gaze, capable of considering the work of art in and for itself; (2) the institutionalisation of art as an object of contemplation and (3) the institutionalisation of galleries and museums with the role of conserving the work of art materially and symbolically (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 36). In fact, rather than following artistic production, institutions now claim that they are at the forefront of experimental and innovative art production. Small alternative spaces and artists’ collectives are institutions as well, their overall short-term impact within the field is however negligible unless they establish alliances with dominant institutions.

In his article Institutionalisation for all (2006), Dave Beech comments on what he calls the “largely unspoken and unexplained distaste with institutionalisation”, and observes that evidently, “Something vital is ostensibly lost in this process of institutionalisation”. Beech refers to Bourdieu’s notion of art’s “inverted economy”, “whereby art is esteemed for the distance it takes from the established measures of value: wealth, power, popularity, etc.” (Beech, 2006, p. 8), hence:

Institutionalisation occurs when the social system gets a grip on art, threatening art’s autonomy, independence and dissent. (Beech, 2006, p. 8)

How do artists perceive their own position within the institution? What are artists’ expectations of art and the art institution? What alternative conditions do they envisage for art?


These institutions, which determine the conditions of cultural consumption, are the very ones in which artistic production is transformed into a tool of ideological control and cultural legitimation. (Buchloh, 1990, p. 143)

Art institutions present two major problems for artists, in the first case, although institutions are “supporting structures” for art, the opportunities they provide for the production of art by way of gallery exhibitions, commissions, residencies etc. are defining contexts. Secondly, art institutions retroactively recuperate works of art by re-defining them in art-historical contexts. In the process of institutionalisation, art is separated from its particular context (de-contextualised) and subsequently re-contextualised as art (neutralised). The condition of “art” with its associated ideologies and exclusions overrides any particular (and temporary) recuperation.

Art does not exist in an ideal abstract space but in real spaces, in museums, biennials, galleries, art fairs, on the street. Depending on where we encounter the work of art it appears to alternate between precious artefact or commodity, between aesthetic experience or social relation, between experiment or monument. Prestigious and imposing museum and gallery spaces immediately feel like churches or shopping malls, they reduce the audience to spectators or consumers of something that is always beyond reach. When we speak of spectator passivity and lack of engagement, this is because everything is mediated. Finding themselves thus on either side of a mediated and inauthentic relationship, artist and audience feel cheated. The museum or gallery space is not just a physical space of display; it is an entire set of practices, conventions and aura around the work of art. Artists thematise and resist this defining context in their work, only to be subsumed once again within the institution. Within the space of the gallery, artists enter into relationships of dependency and rituals of participation that are inextricably linked to the sustainability of their practice: these spaces effectively define what artists produce. Once inside the institution, artist become complicit with it, see eye to eye with its ideology, accept its values and cannot sustain an independent critical position without endangering their own precarious position within the institution.

Disappointed with his exclusion from the exhibition When attitudes become form (1969), at Kunstahlle Bern, Daniel Buren pasted his posters in the public space outside the venue and “was arrested for executing a poster project illegally in the streets” (Birnbaum, 2005, p. 53). He subsequently launched a campaign of similar protest strategies in public spaces in conjunction with his participation in exhibitions.[1] His official exhibition participation earned him recognition while the postering served to promote his work as radical and cutting edge. With installations such as Travail in situ (1971, Wide White Space, Antwerp), Buren brought the two practices together by lining up striped posters (which were also invitations to the exhibition) along the wall to form a band which extended out of the gallery space. Arguably, Buren’s early attempts to destabilize traditional notions of art were motivated by a desire to provoke the attention of the art world, because he abandoned this provocation once he was incontrovertibly established within the art world. Although Buren remained constant with regard to his stated aim to use stripes throughout his career, his use of coloured glass in recent works in situ, like Dan Flavin’s[2] coloured neon installations, has evolved into a form of decorative ambience for museums.[3]

The solution must necessarily lie in creating new contexts and to conceive of new ways to think of art in social space. Not to salvage existing institutions, which like all institutions ultimately seek to stabilise and augment their power. Anton Vidokle who champions the concept of artistic sovereignty (Vidokle, 2010), seems to run out of imagination beyond the familiar problems of artist-run spaces:

Artists’ initiatives these days from the start mimic existing institutional and commercial structures: incorporate, establish a board of directors, sell memberships, produce benefit auctions and market editions, sell artworks, etc. To think that this has no effect on their programming or the content they generate would be naïve. There is virtually no period of experimentation before this type of “normalized” behavior sets in. (Obrist, Vidokle and Aranda, 2007, p. 17)

David Beech concurs:

It is clear that a number of artist-run spaces are set up entrepreneurially to catch the attention of the market and art’s leading public institutions. Such spaces may be funded and managed as independent concerns, but they are in no way ideologically or culturally independent of art’s institutions. (Beech, 2006, p. 10)

Alexander Alberro says that by the 1980s, many artist-run spaces in New York were firmly established “with professional administrators who developed expanded exhibition programmes and sought general audiences” (Alberro, 1998, p. 57). JJ Charlesworth places a similar shift in London in the 1990s:

It was the concentration of power in the hands of certain institutions that provoked the formation of the ICA (and subsequently the Independent Group). A couple of generations later, it was a similar concentration of power that drove the explosion of artist-run initiatives that characterised the London art world of the 1990s. With the rising cost of property in the last decade, that dynamic has largely disappeared from the London art scene, shifting from non-commercial spaces to commercial spaces… (Charlesworth, 2008)

Charlesworth argues that the Independent Group, which was central to the formation of the ICA claimed “the legitimacy that came from championing an art that related to contemporary experience, rather than the institutionalised conventions of a culture rooted in the past” (Charlesworth, 2008). Artist-run spaces are currently regarded as springboards to the market or as risky subsidiaries of major galleries; they have thus steadily discredited their reputation as autonomous spaces.

JJ Charlesworth argues that art institutions are in large part responsible for producing an art scene, rather than merely representing an existing one. Crucially, he suggests that institutions have the option to support “different forms of artistic practice and presentation” (Charlesworth, 2008). This of course is much easier said than done, institutions are not only motivated to stay ahead and current in the work they present. Institutions are themselves actors in a much broader national and international competitive field and they need to meet their targets as well as their budgets. Since the 1990s a more overtly political form of art made a reappearance on the major stages of the art world, from the singular work of artists blanket-branded “relational aesthetics” in the 1990s to exhibitions spearheaded by Documenta,[4] which drew much of the critical fire and were subsequently followed by other institutions in the 2000s.[5]

David Beech argues that institutionalisation threatens to identify art with the “conservative defence of art as a minority culture of permanent values” and suggests that the answer lies in an engagement with “the specifics of the social system that art is gripped by in the process of institutionalisation” (Beech, 2006, p. 8). The question “how do independent institutions become sedimented and trapped in conventions and power struggles” is urgent and warrants research. Beech describes recuperation as “an effect of the cultural capital that is conferred on the artwork by the authority of the institution that houses and frames it” (Beech, 2006, p. 9) and cites Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), as the typical example of how the institutionalisation of the avant-garde was effectively a recuperation of the readymade[6] as modernist object:

The urinal may be worthy of aesthetic attention but to frame it in terms of an untroubled aesthetic or formal experience is to reassert the categories and values of art’s institutions over the subversion of those institutions by anti-art and the values of the readymade. It is an act of recuperation which converts the avant-garde critique of art into an example of acquiescent art. (Beech, 2006, p. 8)

For Beech, the overemphasis of the avant-garde negation of dominant culture is at the expense of the avant-garde’s “principled practices”, such as the “death of the author, the attack on the primacy of the visual, the dematerialization of the art object” (Beech, 2006, p. 9). This is however a radical misunderstanding of the avant-garde because these “principled practices” are merely means, transitional and contingent strategies that have to be continuously reinvented in different contexts. It is precisely these practices that are recuperated and recalibrated as aesthetic forms in dominant art discourses; Duchamp’s readymade is such an institutionalised practice.

The resistance to commodification by making art that cannot be sold surely only makes sense in the context of a practice that negates instrumentalisation. Although it may be a particularly potent aesthetic strategy, what is particular about dematerialisation is its origin as a resistant practice. And theoretically, it is a very cunning strategy; by removing the possibility of any material profit, the dematerialised work of art serves no interests and therefore becomes immune to instrumentalisation. Once dematerialised art becomes a consecrated form of art, then it is just a matter of time before a market springs up. In her disillusioned Postface to Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972 (1973), Lucy Lippard laments that:

Hopes that “conceptual art” would be able to avoid the general commercialization, the destructively “progressive” approach of modernism were for the most part unfounded. It seemed in 1969 that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded; it seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation. Three years later, the major conceptualists are selling work for substantial sums here and in Europe; they are represented by (and still more unexpected—showing in) the world’s most prestigious galleries. (Lippard, 1973, p. 263)

Very few people find this outcome surprising anymore, we have become accustomed to these paradoxes. This is why it matters little if, as Beech argues, the recuperation of the avant-garde was not “complete and final” and the institutionalisation of the avant-garde is not always achieved on the same terms:

Rather than preserving the pre-established cultural settlement, however, the institutionalisation of anti-art has infected art’s institutions with a critical discourse on art’s institutions. In fact, over the last 10 to 15 years art’s institutions have reconfigured themselves largely in terms of the categories and values of the Avant Garde, undoing much of the curatorial work that had converted the Avant Garde into an aesthetic style or spectacular cul-de-sac. (Beech, 2006, p. 8)

Beech argues that recuperation must be maintained and safeguarded by the institution from “radical reclamation” and argues that despite being “framed as authorised”, avant-garde art is available to the public and to the possibility of reversal of recuperation by the “social forces that underpin subversive culture” (Beech, 2006, p. 8). At the same time however, as Bourdieu argues, conservative forces are also “ceaselessly renewed”, whether these are institutions, state and business enterprises or the media (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 343). Thus construed, critique is essentially a game of rhetorical hide-and-seek, incapable of initiating tangible change. Beech however argues in favour of the transformative effect of critique:

Critique, if it is to have a transformative effect, needs to build alternative institutions. If critical culture is not to be converted into mainstream culture without remainder then it needs to institutionalise its alternative values. (Beech, 2006, p. 10)

Beech is right in arguing that we need to reinforce values that are alternative to the current “mainstream”, however, if we are not talking about the transformation of “mainstream culture” then what transformation are we talking about? It makes little sense to think of this transformation taking place within the fringes of the art world. The only way to really change anything is to start with pragmatic short-term goals and pursue them with self-sufficient means. For artists this means establishing sustainable practices and independent networks. Beech proposes that a “stronger brand of independence” than the entrepreneurial art-run space is necessary for a “substantial divergence from business-as-usual”:

The first condition of art’s independence is not art’s isolation but its contestation of the cultural field, either by setting up alternative spaces or by occupying existing spaces differently. (Beech, 2006, p. 10)

Beech’s suggestion however is for more institutions, because “alternative spaces, artist-run galleries and artist-led art magazines are institutions”:

Art’s existing institutions can be reused independently if they are treated as contested spaces. Independence, resistance and dissent have to be manufactured. (Beech, 2006, p. 10)

Although it is true that independence must be “manufactured”, it is clear that the intention to create alternative spaces or to occupy spaces differently has failed. This notion of institutionalisation would have to depart from the model of the New York group Collaborative Projects (Colab), which was formed in 1977 and incorporated as a non-profit organisation in 1978 to access government funding available to arts organisations (Ault, 2002, p. 217). Colab obtained government grants and produced and sponsored large thematic exhibitions, films and screenings, X Magazine, Potato Wolf a weekly live experimental TV series broadcast on Manhattan Cable. With its own sources of funding, Colab was in control of its own exhibitions and cable TV shows, and bypassed the bigger, more established alternative spaces. However, if the long-term aspiration behind these intentions is to claim a stake in the contested territory of the mainstream art world then they will always be vulnerable to recuperation and co-optation.

In his Frieze article Under the Canary written in 1992, David Batchelor observed the rising trend of DIY exhibitions in warehouse spaces. He argued that what began as a necessity to make up for the lack of visibility for artists without gallery representation turned quickly into a trend. Batchelor admits that it was tempting to describe this trend as the beginning of a movement away from the “establishment towards a situation where control rests with the practitioner rather than with the dealer or agent”, or even a politically motivated “rejection of the dominant commercially-orientated art world” (Batchelor, 1992). He concludes however that the majority of artists were thus:

…clearly colonising space in an attempt to capture the uninterested, the dismissive or the myopic inside the very structures that are rejecting their work. The found spaces are being used as a springboard from which to jump back into the gallery. (Batchelor, 1992)

As Batchelor points out, it makes a lot of sense that artists will seek “Critical acclaim, public appreciation and financial rewards” from their peers and their chosen field (Batchelor, 1992). But ultimately, he sees emerging artists as mischievous adolescents who desperately negotiate the rites of passage into the art world. These artists discover that the best way to gain entry is by invitation once they have demonstrated that they can promote themselves independently. Far from wishing to contact a different audience, artist-run spaces address an informed audience (Batchelor, 1992).

Dave Beech concludes his article with the argument that the “taboo on institutionalisation” is effectively a refusal to nurture alternative practices by denying them the institutionalisation that they “need and deserve in order to thrive” (Beech, 2006, p. 10):

We do not need to avoid institutionalisation, we need fuller, wider, and more diverse forms of institutionalisation. Institutionalisation for the few needs to be replaced by institutionalisation for all. (Beech, 2006, p. 10)

Beech’s example is the concept of “self-institutionalisation”, introduced by Jakob Jakobsen and Henriette Heise in 1998, when they set up Info Centre in East London to serve as an “exhibition space, archive and bookshop”. Jakobsen used the term “self-institutionalisation” to designate a “series of practical experiments with the construction and use of institutions” (Jakobsen, 2006, p. 8). The first manifesto or “info sheet” stated that Info Centre was committed to art as an institutionalising practice over and above the production of objects with an extended social aim:

We are committed to an understanding of art practice that is not exclusively related to the making of art works, but also includes the establishing of institutions for the experience and use of art and generally the making of institutions for human life. (Jakobsen, 2006, p. 8)

Funded by the Danish Contemporary Art Foundation, Info Centre was intended as a temporary institution, and “engaged and serviced a range of communities, discourses and networks in London” (Davies, 2001), and it closed down in 1999 (Jakobsen, 2006, p. 8).

The construction of an institution was not intended as a critique but instead as a means to take control of both production and distribution. It represented an escape from oppositional institutional critique through the total refusal of the dominant institutions’ monopoly of power. (Jakobsen, 2006, p. 8)

Anthony Davies describes this strategy as “starburst”, which he defines as setting up “a programme for a specified period and then re-routing the networks and discourses to other locations” (Davies, 2001). This activity included Infopool meetings in London, publications, a website and the Copenhagen Free University (CFU) set up in Jakobsen and Heise’s apartment in Copenhagen in 2001 (Jakobsen and Heise, 2007). In their statement, WE HAVE WON! (2007), Jakobsen and Heise recount their objectives in setting up CFU as a reaction against recent shifts in artists’ self-definition as accomplices to power in the prevailing conditions of neo-liberalism. The CFU was additionally a reaction against a similar adaptation of education to corporate practice, with the associated reification and commodification of knowledge:

The Copenhagen Free University made it clear that universities do not necessarily have to reflect the hegemonic structures of society; universities could be organised and based in and around the everyday knowledge and material struggles structuring people’s lives. […] Knowledge for us is always situated and interwoved with desire. (Jakobsen and Heise, 2007)

More significantly, Jakobsen and Heise point out that the CPU “never wanted to become a fixed identity”, the project was a temporary project from the start (Jakobsen and Heise, 2007):

This is why the Copenhagen Free University closed down at the end of 2007. Looking back at the six years of existence of the CFU we end our activities with a clear conviction and declare: We Have Won! (Jakobsen and Heise, 2007)

Far from emphasising the need to “institutionalise alternatives in order to care for them […] to underwrite alternative practices with the institutions that they need and deserve in order to thrive” (Beech, 2006, p. 10) as Beech argues, Jakobsen and Heise’s concept of “self-institutionalisation” does not propose the retreat to defensive enclosure that the choice of the term implies.[7] They argue instead that with their conceptualisation of the term is the intention “to take power and play with power but also to abolish power” (Jakobsen and Heise, 2007).

Beech’s conclusion is misleading because institutions invariably end up courting power in order to survive. Gerald Raunig emphasises that amongst its various definitions, the term “institution” also carries the “sense of constituted power” (Raunig, 2009, p. 8). In his essay What is an Institution? (2006), John Searle demonstrates that the purpose of institutions is to create power relationships (Searle, 2006, p. 34). Searle defines institutions in terms of their specific properties, clearly distinguishing art-making practices from institutional practices.

Searle argues that the defining characteristic of any institution is language itself, the “fundamental social institution” (Searle, 2006, p. 36). Searle points out that although institutions are dependent on human beliefs, we take them for granted and treat them as though they have physical properties. To answer the question “What is an institution?”, Searle suggests that we should examine what distinguishes institutional facts from other types of facts (Searle, 2006, p. 24). He foregrounds two concepts to account for the difference between social facts and institutional facts. In the first instance, the “collective assignment of function” describes our social capacity to assign a function to things that do not posses that function intrinsically. Secondly, “status functions” are a particular form of “assignment of function” (Searle, 2006, p. 30). We assign functions to people or objects when they cannot carry out those functions entirely by means of their physical properties. Those functions are thereby carried out by our collective belief that the objects or persons have “a certain status and with that status a function”. To illustrate his argument, Searle uses the example of a wall that physically blocks the movement of traffic. Even when the wall deteriorates, the remaining line of stones is still recognised as a boundary and continues to perform the same function, blocking passage to anyone who is not authorised to cross it. This occurs as long as everyone continues to accept the status of the line of stones as a boundary. This is a status function (Searle, 2006, p. 31).

Searle argues that this apparently “feeble apparatus” does not “come tumbling down” because of its scope: the status function “iterates upward indefinitely” and the entire system operates laterally and vertically in an interlocking system of rights and obligations. More specifically, when the status function becomes regularised it becomes a rule. These rules, expressed as “X counts as Y in context C”, are what constitute institutional structures. Unlike ordinary rules, which exist independently of institutions, status functions are “constitutive rules” which do not merely regulate but “constitute the very behavior they regulate” (Searle, 2006, p. 32). Art thus seems to escape the regulating role of the status function because the rules of art do not constitute the behaviour they regulate. If this were so, we would not have any expectations of innovation in art.

Searle argues that ultimately the purpose of institutions is to create power relationships: “Human institutions are, above all, enabling, because they create power, but it is a special kind of power” (Searle, 2006, p. 34). This special kind of power governs all institutional structures including “rights, duties, obligations, authorizations, permissions, empowerments, requirements, and certifications”, Searle calls these “deontic powers” (Searle, 2006, p. 34):

Think of anything you would care to mention—private property, government, contractual relationships, as well as such informal relationships as friendship, family and social clubs. All of these are matters of rights, duties, obligations, etc. They are structures of power relationships. (Searle, 2006, p. 34)

These power relations, according to Searle, function in a way that is fundamental to the understanding of society, namely that “institutional structures create desire-independent reasons for action”. Institutions thus essentially provide the recognition of duties, obligations and requirements, as well as the motivation to carry them out “independent of your inclinations at the moment”. But institutional structures define activities that we would not normally associate with obligations, art is such an activity. Searle argues that this is a critical issue because the locus of institutional power in many cases defines “very powerful human desires”, such as money and political power: “By creating institutional reality, we increase human power enormously”. Searle explains that by creating institutions “we increase the human capacity for action” (Searle, 2006, p. 35). Institutions thus propel action by motivating it.

For Searle, the possibility of satisfying our desires within institutional structures depends on the recognition of deontic relationships:

Without the recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance of the deontic relationships, your power is not worth a damn. It is only worthwhile to have money or a university degree or to be president of the United States if other people recognize your having this status. (Searle, 2006, p. 35)

If we accept Searle’s definition of the structure and function of the institution, the practice of art-making does not constitute an institution. Searle argues that “money, property, government and marriage” are institutions, whereas “science, education and religion” do not fall under the same category. They are not institutions, although there are singular institutions as well as institutional facts within these fields (Searle, 2006, p. 46):

‘The National Science Foundation’ names an institution. ‘Science’ does not. The rules of scientific method, if there are such, are regulative and not constitutive. They are designed to maximize the probability of discovering the truth, not to create status functions with deontic powers (Searle, 2006, p. 47)

Art is not an institution because it is not “defined by a set of constitutive rules” (Searle, 2006, p. 46). A museum however, is defined by such rules, museums have board members or trustees, they have to meet qualitative targets and they have internal rules, which regulate the various departments and job descriptions. Museum rules are also constitutive of the behaviour of visitors and the type of art that they display. Between the work of the artist and the function of the museum is the discursive field of the “institution of art” which is “defined by a set of constitutive rules” (Searle, 2006, p. 46):

Do those rules determine status functions which are in fact collectively recognized and accepted? (Searle, 2006, p. 46)

They are, the entrance criteria for art competitions, MA courses in curating and art-writing residencies specify these requirements.

Are those status functions only performable in virtue of the collective recognition and acceptance, and not in virtue of the observer independent features of the situation alone? (Searle, 2006, p. 46)

Yes, there is no manifest distinction between the “immaterial labour” of artists, curators and art-writers from the labour of scholars, researchers and administrators. The controversial practice of Anton Vidokle is much debated but not contested as such, he is considered an artist.

Do the status functions carry recognized and accepted deontic powers? (Searle, 2006, p. 47)

They do, the art world is constituted by collectively recognised “rights, duties, obligations, authorizations, permissions, empowerments, requirements, and certifications” (Searle, 2006, p. 34). The deontic powers of the art institution provide the motivation to keep producing and networking incessantly without immediate reward, and thus function as “desire-independent reasons for action” (Searle, 2006, p. 35).

The art institution thus provides the engine that drives the productivity of the field of art. Searle argues that the creation of a field for “desire-based reasons for action” becomes contingent on the acknowledgment of “a system of desire-independent reasons for action”, and this is true not only for those who compete for power within the institution, but for the audience as well (Searle, 2006, p. 35). Thus the increased activity of the art field depends on the institutional field, from which it also maintains a certain amount of independence in terms of its fundamental structure. The field of art practice can be described as the “desire-based reasons for action”, which is not governed by constitutive rules. However, the art world is dependent on the art institution as a “system of desire-independent reasons for action” governed by constitutive rules. Artists straddle both the art field and the art institution and thus have to negotiate these differences on their own terms individually.

Peter Bürger regards the institution of art as virtually synonymous with artistic autonomy. He ascribes to “the institutional framework” the role of “releasing art from the demand that it fulfil a social function”, (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 25). Searle’s theory of the institution however identifies the institution of art unequivocally as a means for the functionalisation of art. The necessity for “desire-independent reasons for action” in the art field negates the critical and emancipatory potential of art practices as unique “desire-based reasons for action”. Additionally, it makes little sense to mobilise external reasons to motivate artists to do what they enjoy doing anyway.

In his article Occasional Documents: Towards Situation (2001), Howard Slater draws on the Situationists’ revolutionary hypotheses of “unitary urbanism” and the “construction of situations” (Debord, 1995/1957) to argue that the only way to substitute “a revolutionary creativity of the social field” in the place of reified individual creativity is to create “autonomous institutions through which new social relations informed by desire and becoming can come into a mutually recognised existence as social entities” (Slater, 2001). For Slater the creation of autonomous institutions depends on what Cornelius Castoriadis describes as the individual’s “internalisation” of social institutions. For Castoriadis, individuals are constituted by internalising social institutions; they thus become the “concrete embodiment” of these institutions:

This internalization, we know, is anything but superficial: modes of thought and of action, norms and values, and, ultimately, the very identity of the individual as a social being all depend upon it. (Castoriadis, 1996, p. 133)

For Castoriadis, society is a configuration of institutions that conceal the fact that they are socially constructed. Slater argues that through their concealment, institutions do not only appear reified and apparently transcendent, they in fact institute heteronomous social relations. Heteronomy thus becomes internalised “as the conditioning factor of identity, as a mode of being inscribed in the social fabric” (Slater, 2001). For Castoriadis this concealment of the instituted social imaginary works together with the rigid structure of institutions to constitute the “rigidity of the socially fabricated individual and the repression of the psyche’s radical imagination” (Castoriadis, 1996, p. 132). Thus, as Slater points out:

…not only is a creative living labour alienated from the worker in the product, but the creative activity of self-institution, of seeing institutions as social organs that can be modified and transformed, is itself similarly subject to an alienation. (Slater, 2001)

Taking together the points that Searle, Castoriadis and Slater make, we can conclude that self-institutionalisation does not guarantee that we can escape the rigidity of institutions and their inevitable sedimentation into constricting and invisible conventions, which not only conceal their nature but also end up becoming defining ends in themselves. For Castoriadis a true “politics of autonomy” would have the task of enabling “the collectivity to create the institutions that, when internalized by the individuals, will not limit but rather enlarge their capacity for becoming autonomous” (Castoriadis, 1996, p. 134). The politics of autonomy and the politics of art are thus two entirely different things.

Undecidability, indeterminacy and plurality

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” — though not for all — this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (Wittgenstein, 1968, §43)

Where is meaning located? Is the meaning of a work of art located within the object itself? Does meaning depend on the artist’s intention?[8] Or the context of the encounter with art? Is the meaning entirely up to the audience? I will argue that meaning is relational; the work of art is always open to contingent and supplemental interpretations. Claude Levi-Strauss sees the desire for meaning as a desperate attempt to make sense of reality by forging connections between disparate fragments:

Mythical thought for its part is imprisoned in the events and experiences which it never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning. (Levi-Strauss, 1962, p. 22)

Edward Said describes this urge to create meaning as a fear of meaninglessness:

The writer is as much a respondent as he is a describer. Similarly the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a mortal thing to act, to produce some sense that even though ugly is still better than meaninglessness. (Said, 1984, p. 41)

The fixing of meaning, ascribing a coherent sense to what has none is a fallacy of textual critique, which translates art into language. In art, the meaning is created in the interplay between various registers (Said, 1984, p. 40). These registers are physical and intellectual, explicit and implicit, in one word: aesthetic. This interplay cannot be translated into language without remainder, as much as a text cannot be translated from one language into another without losing something vital.

In Seduction (1990), Jean Baudrillard argues that “total liberty, or total indeterminacy are not opposed to meaning. One can produce meaning simply by playing with chance or disorder”, (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 138). This is what the surrealists taught us. Sometimes, in order to understand something it helps to take it out of its familiar context, the meaning of a particular text will generate different meanings when it is read in conjunction with other texts. The experience of a work of art is similarly subject to the effect of other works of art. Works of art do not “contain” a reducible sense.

In my first encounter with Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense (2004), I read and re-read the first chapters trying to locate the definitions of his terms. I gave up and continued to read and eventually I understood what his terms meant through the contexts in which he uses them. Deleuze puts his terms to use rather than treating them as stable signs; they thus become subverted or lose their original meanings through their function. Not only words and phrases, but entire works of art can be taken out of context and acquire new meanings. How could Nietzsche be used against his own ideas? Why is Kant still controversial? How does collage work if not by decontextualization and juxtaposition? Just as words acquire their meaning through their use, so texts and works of art can appear meaningful in one way or another within the contingency of circumstances in which we encounter them. Understanding depends on prior experience and knowledge, on particular registers and associations that are cultural and context-specific. Derrida only becomes comprehensible within the context of the texts he deconstructs. Texts, discourses and events are constrained by their contexts.

In Signature Event Context (1982), Jacques Derrida argues that the determination of a context is never absolute or certain. In fact, Derrida argues that the notion of context harbours “behind a certain confusion, very determined philosophical presuppositions” which exceed the conventional notion of context and unsettle its value and meaning (Derrida, 1982, p. 310). For Derrida the scope of the text is massively reduced by the limits of a context. However, the intention of Derrida’s argument is to sever all ties between text and presence, which relegates the text to a textual universe, and thus attracts due criticism from Edward Said. In his essay, The World, The Text, and the Critic (1984), Said argues that even in their most rarefied form, texts “are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly” (Said, 1984, p. 35). This is why circumstantial reality, or what Said calls “worldliness” is a feature of all discourse, whether it is spoken or written (Said, 1984, p. 34). The “worldliness” of the literary text refers to the ways in which literature is entrenched in narratives of history and geography and the means whereby readers bring their own worldviews to bear on literature.

Said argues that the thesis of the potentially limitless interpretations of a text—because “all reading is misreading”—is derived from the “conception of the text as existing within a hermetic, Alexandrian textual universe, which has no connection with actuality” (Said, 1984, pp. 39-40). He argues that, on the contrary, “texts impose constraints upon their interpretation [because] the closeness of the world’s body to the text’s body forces readers to take both into consideration” (Said, 1984, p. 39). Furthermore, a function of texts is to situate themselves by “soliciting the world’s attention” and they do this by placing “restraints upon what can be done with them interpretively” (Said, 1984, p. 40). This is more or less Derrida’s argument. Similarly, while Derrida takes issue with John Austin’s emphasis on the spoken performative, Said takes issue with Paul Ricoeur’s distinction between spoken and written discourse, and the associated assumption that circumstantial reality is the property of the “speech situation”:

According to Ricoeur, speech and circumstantial reality exist in a state of presence, whereas writing and texts exist in a state of suspension—that is, outside circumstantial reality—until they are “actualized” and made present by the reader-critic. (Said, 1984, p. 34)

For Said, all texts are worldly because they are implicated in particular historical contexts. A text is something historically and materially more than a critical occasion, it is a social and political monument.

Texts are a system of forces institutionalized by the reigning culture at some human cost to its various components. For texts after all are not an ideal cosmos of ideally equal monuments. (Said, 1984, p. 53)

For Said, the text engages the world in ways that are “numerous and complicated” (Said, 1984, p. 35). Every text or aesthetic object has an “idiolect, voice, or more firmly, irreducible individuality” (Said, 1984, p. 33), it is an impersonal object which can nevertheless “deliver an imprint or a trace of something as lively, immediate and transitory as a ‘voice’ […] it bears a personality, for which a common analogy is a talking voice addressing someone” (Said, 1984, p. 33). The text therefore is not only a voice, which addresses a potential audience, it is also worldly, it is in the world.

Exhibitions also address an audience. Michael Warner argues in Publics and Counterpublics (2002), that the audience is constituted through the address; the mode of address imposes a set of assumptions on the public (Warner, 2002, p. 67, 87). The process of publication makes a set of assumptions public, they become common currency. Although Said and Derrida agree on this, for Said the text is not self-sufficient, while for Derrida, the text stands for itself and is therefore autonomous. Outside of its context, the text is open to interpretation and therefore also becomes vulnerable to misuse. This is not a problem of polysemy as Derrida shows, but a question of dissemination (Derrida, 1982, p. 310). Considered in terms of the work of art, the privileging of the notion of dissemination over polysemia reframes the plurality of the work of art and its multiple interpretations, as a dispersal of meaning. We have all regarded the same work of art anew in a different exhibition context: are Georg Baselitz’s monumental wooden sculptures funny or only when we see them in a context such as John Bock’s exhibition Klutterkammer (2004), at the ICA?

In Constitutive Effects: The Techniques of the Curator (2007), Simon Sheikh argues that historically, public exhibitions were amongst the disciplinary and pedagogical techniques used in the creation of the bourgeois subject. Nineteenth-century exhibition making “marked not only a display and division of knowledge, power and spectatorship, it also marked a production of a public [with] constitutive effects on its subjects and objects alike” (Sheikh, 2007, p. 175). Employing a pedagogical approach, the museum constituted the viewing subject as a subject of knowledge but also represented the subject through the curatorial mode of address. Techniques of collection and display represented colonial and national histories of the emerging nation states, and thereby also circulated specific values, ideologies and power/knowledge relationships through rational argument and persuasion, rather than by decree (Sheikh, 2007, pp. 175-176). Involved thus in “an economy of desire as well as in relations of power and knowledge”, public exhibitions both inscribed and empowered the bourgeois subject. Exhibition practice also set up divisions and exclusions because access was predicated on an understanding and acceptance of the represented histories and identities. Exhibitions thus also “indicated ways of seeing and behaving” (Sheikh, 2007, p. 177):

And thus the importance of the art opening, the vernissage, as a bourgeois ritual of initiation and cultivation: one is not merely the first to watch (and, in some cases, buy) but also to be watched: to be visible as the cultivated bourgeois subject of reason, in the right place and in your place. (Sheikh, 2007, p. 177)

Giorgio Agamben maintains that culture in traditional societies exists as absolute identity between an act of transmission and the thing transmitted, this is what constitutes tradition. In modern societies, characterised by the accumulation of culture, transmission is recuperated by aesthetics (Agamben, 1999, p. 114). The function of transmission as a frame and context serves as the locus of meaning and overrides the content of the transmission.

Inevitably, every artwork is infinitely interpretable, and it can even be argued that it will always be misunderstood (Adorno, 2002/1970, pp. 346-347). This is demonstrated in the episode of Martin Heidegger’s misunderstanding of Van Gogh’s painting of “peasant shoes” (Heidegger, 2000/1937), his correspondence with Meyer Shapiro[9] and Derrida’s Restitutions (1987/1971). We understand by misunderstanding. We cannot decipher the layers of code, so we put ourselves in Van Gogh’s shoes and draw our own conclusions.

…a text has a specific situation, placing restraints upon the interpreter and his interpretation not because the situation is hidden within the text as a mystery, but rather because the situation exists at the same level of surface particularity as the textual object itself. (Said, 1984, p. 39)

We might thus argue that essentially, it does not matter how we interpret the work of art, its meaning is dependent on a particular encounter. When speaking about works of art, we also necessarily speak of things that are not art; even abstract art is about something other than art.[10] A recent style of criticism begins with an anecdote of events that precede the encounter with the work of art. These events provide the critic with a way to frame and make sense of the work. The work of art does not generate meanings of its own accord, but through a “constitutive interaction” (Said, 1984, p. 39). Meaning is relational and cannot be deduced from an isolated object. Without a binding context, reality is a potentially infinite meaningless network. To engage in a debate about the meaning of a particular work of art is not to come to any hard and fast conclusions, as the work will keep generating meanings on repeated viewings. The endeavour to pin down the meaning of the work of art is at best a literary or linguistic exercise.

Adorno argues that works of art are “objective” because they are produced through a dialectics of subjectivity and otherness (Adorno, 2002/1970, pp. 264, 273-275, 344-345). But Adorno understands the “objectivity” of the work of art in another sense as well, he argues that the relationship of art to society is to be found not in reception but in the anterior sphere of production, because art is:

…the product of the division of labor […] human reactions to artworks have been mediated to their utmost and do not refer immediately to the object; indeed, they are now mediated by society as a whole. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 228)

This means that the significance of art in relation to society is given regardless of the work’s content. Adorno thus disregards the particular content and the reception of the work of art, its particular context and the interpretations and associations the work has accrued over time in the constitution of meaning in art:

Interest in the social decipherment of art must orient itself to production rather than being content with the study and classification of effects that for social reasons often totally diverge from the artworks and their objective social content. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 228)

This “objective social content” is the historically inscribed content of the work of art and what stands in for the meaning of the work of art; it stands for an “objective” reading not of singular works of art, but of art as such. Adorno is making a distinction between the reception or interpretation of art and its literal relationship to society. For Adorno, the work of art fulfils an objective role within society; this is the significance of the work, not its manifest content. The significance of a work of art is to be found in the fact that its reception might cause a controversy or none at all. Diedrich Diederichsen points out that very little is generated in terms of discourse on the part of works of art that no longer need to negotiate their legitimacy, and that the role of art is precisely to generate this discourse (Diederichsen, 2008, p. 30).

Adorno argues that the relationship of art to society, or the fact that art must be presented as art (in the institution of art), is the real purpose of art, and it thus overrides the artist’s intentions. Susan Buck-Morss too argues that it does not matter what artists do:

…so long as it is done within the authorised, artworld space. (Here the analogy with “theory world” would seem to be absolute, as the academic freedom of critical theorists coincides with our lack of influence in public and political debate). (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 68)

How do we recognise art?

Products which are considered “works of art” have been singled out as culturally significant objects by those who, at any given time and social stratum, wield the power to confer the predicate “work of art” onto them; they cannot elevate themselves from the host of man-made objects simply on the basis of some inherent qualities. (Haacke, 2006, p. 53)

How do we recognise art? Can we define art? Can a work of art exist only within a protected and dedicated space or do we recognise a work of art in a casual environment? Does the work rely on its context to be understood as “art” or does it have that quality in and of itself? Can the work of art create its own context?

For Brian O’Doherty, Duchamp’s two “gallery gestures”, 1,200 Bags of Coal (1938)[11] and Mile of String (1942)[12] are “not art, perhaps, but artlike”. More than any work of art, the gesture “depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins”. The curious status of the gesture, its “meta-life around and about art” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40), prompts O’Doherty to ask to whom does Duchamp address the gestures:

Are they delivered to the spectator? To history? To art criticism? To other artists? To all, of course, but the address is blurred. If pressed to send the gestures somewhere, I’d send them to other artists. (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40)

O’Doherty seems to be on the right track, because as he points out:

Both Duchamp’s gestures fail to acknowledge the other art around, which becomes wallpaper. Yet the artists’ protest (did any of them ever say how they felt?) is preempted. For the harassment of their work is disguised as harassment of the spectators (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40)

Duchamp’s gestures—and his “hostility” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 41)—were not directed at the audience but at the artists because the ideological site of the gallery is the intensification of the artist’s commitment to art. Helen Molesworth argues that:

By challenging the necessity of traditional artistic labor and the value of unique objects and by establishing a potential continuum between the space and activities of everyday life and the rarified realm of art, Duchamp’s readymades constituted the most serious attack on the category of Art since the Renaissance. (Molesworth, 2003, p. 28)

But if the gestures survive as a sustained attack on the institution of art, the readymade does not. Duchamp’s gallery gestures continue to perform this critique on artists for whom Duchamp is an influential precursor, even while they aestheticise his protest. By repeating Duchamp’s “harassment”, by brining it repeatedly, parodically into the museum, artists have fetishised it. Andy Warhol plays off the Brillo Boxes (1964) against the hermeticism of the exhibition space. The outcome is not a challenge to the gallery space, but a fetishisation of the mass produced object. Molesworth argues that Duchamp liberated artists from artistic convention:

Far from destroying art, Duchamp’s profound challenge ultimately served to create an enormous field of aesthetic possibility. It helped liberate artists from conventional modes of working, contributing to a climate that permitted and rewarded an increasingly porous idea of art’s possibilities. (Molesworth, 2003, p. 28)

Benjamin Buchloh views Duchamp’s readymade as “the ultimate subject of a legal definition and the result of institutional validation (a discourse of power rather than taste)”. Buchloh points out that the freedom conceptual art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions (Buchloh, 1990, pp. 117).

This erosion works, then, not just against the hegemony of the visual, but against the possibility of any other aspect of the aesthetic experience as being autonomous and self-sufficient. (Buchloh, 1989, p. 118)

According to Susan Buck-Morss, it was “Duchamp’s famous gesture of placing a urinal on the museum wall that performed the dialectical reversal of subject and predicate: Because it is in the museum, it is art” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 66). Art practice, seemingly liberated from the criteria of taste and politics is now dependent on legitimisation from “the museum, the curatorial decision, and the biennials that legitimate the artists, and on which they (un-freely) depend” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 67). As Jan Verwoert points out “if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not” (Verwoert, 2005). At the same time, however, the institution of art ostensibly and structurally remains faithful to the subjective criteria of the judgement of taste. The gallery space, the museum, the exhibition, remain unchallenged in their monopoly on aesthetic practice.

Following Adorno’s emphasis on the “immanent critique” of art (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 248), Bürger argues that art is defined by its self-criticism (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22). Brian O’Doherty regards Duchamp’s gestures as a singular occasion to examine what happens to the work of art in the exhibition context (and how we make sense of art). Considering how the gestures “subsumed an entire gallery […] and managed to do so while it was full of other art”, O’Doherty observes that:

By exposing the effect of context on art, of the container on the contained, Duchamp recognized an area of art that hadn’t yet been invented. This invention of context initiated a series of gestures which “develop” the idea of a gallery space as a single unit, suitable for manipulation as an esthetic counter. From this moment on there is a seepage of energy from art to its surroundings. With time, the ratio between the literalization of art and the mythification of the gallery is inverse and increasing. (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40)

O’Doherty points out that the gallery space assumes not only the role of “context”, but also of “history” and “ideology”, in a word, our belief about what art is and what it does. Duchamp’s gesture is an “invention”, its formal content lies in its “aptness, economy and grace”:

It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs that bull. For it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and ideas. (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40)

O’Doherty points out that when we look at a work of art, the gallery space disappears and becomes something that we take for granted, but also that its invisibly provides the structure and support for the way that we look at and understand a work of art. Adorno makes a similar argument regarding the way we understand the “new” in art; we understand it in relation to the “old”. Adorno privileges “the new” as a critique (but also a validation) of “older aesthetic norms” and regards it as part of the work of art: “through the new, critique—the refusal—becomes an objective element of art itself” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 22). However, the new is always in danger of becoming fetishised: “Fetishization expresses the paradox of all art that is no longer self-evident to itself”[13] (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 22). Adorno argues that art cannot take its conventions for granted and points to the paradox of an art that seeks out the new (and different), only to subsume it within the old (and the same):

The new wants nonidentity, yet intention reduces it to identity; modern art constantly works at the Munchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 22)

The conceptual artists Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn launch a similar critique of Judd’s “specific object”:

You are saying that materials which don’t “belong” to art are more objective. But you are also saying that, by appropriating these materials “for” art purposes, they lose their extra-art associations. They become materials “without histories.” (Beveridge and Burn, 1975, p. 130)

Art defined as its self-consciousness is involved in relentless re-definition through the interrogation of anything that may be taken for granted about art. However the insights of this self-critique quickly fall back into convention and the self-critique of art falls back onto the distinction between art and non-art. The process can be described as a progressive expansion and contraction of the field of art with the persistent importation and exportation of its contents. This is evident in the practice of artists in the twentieth century who have stripped art of all its recognizable characteristics and in the expansion of art into other fields. The relatively recent coupling of art and research is one such example.[14]

…the only sense in which there is a difference between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nonart is that the appreciations have different objects. The institutional structure in which the art object is embedded, not different kinds of appreciation, makes the difference between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nonart. (Dickie, 1974, p. 41)

Theodor Adorno argues that we cannot understand art with the help of a theory of art because “the arts will not fit into any gapless concept of art” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 2), we can only understand art “by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 3). For Adorno art “is defined by its relation to what it is not”, he argues that the “specifically artistic in art must be derived concretely from its other” (Adorno, 2002, p. 3):

Art acquires its specificity by separating itself from what it developed out of; its law of movement is its law of form. It exists only in relation to its other; it is the process that transpires with its other (Adorno, 2002, p. 3)

Art is also defined by the distinction between art and non-art.[15] The vague and inconsistent distinction between contemporary art and popular culture is evident in the impossibility of articulating any well-defined description of art that radically excludes popular culture. In fact, the definition of art has stumped theorists for centuries. Obviously art cannot be defined. We cannot define art either in terms of its individual or collective agents because popular culture too is produced by individual or collective agents acting independently of agencies or companies. Artists of the twentieth century (Marcel Duchamp, Allan Kaprow, Sol LeWitt, Group Material, Gorilla Girls) have divested art of authorship and its significance as the public expression of subjectivity[16] while, as Boris Groys points out, this polemic only serves to conceal the process of institutional authorisation which amounts to the “multiple authorship” of art (Groys, 2008, pp. 96-97).

Neither can the definition of art be determined by recourse to its historical origins because “artworks became artworks only by negating their origin […] art retroactively annihilated that from which it emerged” (Adorno, 2002/1970, pp. 2-3). Adorno conceives of a progressive development of art, which is defined by what it replaces and what it appropriates through successive iterations. He therefore also conceives the end of art:

Art and artworks are perishable, not simply because by their heteronomy they are dependent, but because right into the smallest detail of their autonomy, which sanctions the socially determined splitting off of spirit by the division of labor, they are not only art but something foreign and opposed to it. Admixed with art’s own concept is the ferment of its own abolition. (Adorno, 2002, p. 4)

“Art” for Ranciere is “the dispositif that renders [the different arts] visible” or more precisely, art is “the framing of a space of presentation by which the things of art are identified as such” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 23). Art serves to identify art. If art performs this function, it is immanent and incidental to what art is. Art is not defined, art is legitimised. The question is how art is legitimised as art, because this is no longer a function of art itself. For Diederichsen, “the type of art that generates speculative profits seems to rest on the shoulders of the type that was required to justify itself”, whilst

…the art in need of justification and its justifying discourses supply the grist for the art world’s mill, its conversation and its ideas. But beneath this lies the plump flesh of the art economy – the very old as new (Diederichsen, 2008, p. 30)

Artworks, art practices, actions or events do not have an essential ontological status; they acquire their status only in the context of an encounter. This amounts to the “relational” nature of art. But if art cannot be defined, then how do we recognise it? Pierre Bourdieu argues that the “specific economy of the literary and artistic field [is] based on a particular form of belief”, the work of art only exists because of the (collective) belief which recognises and acknowledges it as a work of art. This requires us to understand the work of art as a fetish which is constituted by—amongst other things—discourses which produce the work of art as an “object of belief”. Every discourse contains not only the affirmation of the work, but also an affirmation of its own legitimacy (Bourdieu, 1993, pp. 35-36).

What is camouflaged here is the regulation of production and dissemination of cultural production. The mechanism of ‘qualitative’ judgement is the belief system that sustains this apparently natural system of the selection and promotion of artists. The importance ascribed to professionalism contains this naturalised, unspoken concept of quality, which is disseminated throughout the art world. The production of a work of art involves material production but also symbolic production: the production of the value of the work and production of belief in the value of the work (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 36). Thus the necessity of taking into account both the social conditions of artistic production (social origin, education, qualifications etc.) as well as the social conditions of the field of social agents which help to define and produce the value of works of art (institutions, museums, galleries):

…it is a question of understanding works of art as a manifestation of the field as a whole, in which all the powers of the field, and all the determinisms inherent in its structure and functioning, are concentrated. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 37)

If we cannot take for granted the existence of art, the multitude of forms it assumes also come under question. Art institutions however cannot function on this basis of uncertainty. Art institutions perform an affirmation of art over and above the affirmation of the individual works of art they display. This is the task for specialists; their influence is in direct proportion to their institutionally conferred status as curators, writers, critics and artists. If anything can be art, then it is important that we can rely on an authority to separate art from non-art. Andrea Fraser and Benjamin Buchloh argue that art is constituted not as such by the spaces or practices of art but by the discourse of art (Fraser, 2005, p. 103, Buchloh, 1990, p. 118). The institution of art provides the conditions for the production of art as well as the discourses by which we recognize art. It produces discourses on the “meaning” of art as well as discourses on the concept of “meaning”.

In her essay, One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity (1997), Miwon Kwon argues that site-specific art extends previous attempts to take art out of the museum and gallery circuit by subordinating the “site” (both in terms of actual location and institutional frame), to “a discursively determined site that is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate” (Kwon, 1997, p. 92). Art thus seems to find a space for itself outside of institutional space and in the “ungrounded, fluid, virtual” (Kwon, 1997, p. 95) and apparently uninstitutionalised field of discourse. Kwon argues that “unlike previous models”, the “site” of discourse:

…is not defined as a precondition. Rather, it is generated by the work (often as “content”), and then verified by its convergence with an existing discursive formation. (Kwon, 1997, p. 92)

This however only proves that art may overflow the institutional context, but it remains attached and dependent through discourse. Institutions represent themselves through discourse, extending their traditional pedagogical model with panel discussions, conferences and talks.[17] Nicolas Bourriaud’s intention in writing Relational Aesthetics (1998) was to articulate a way of understanding art practice in the 1990s. Bourriaud tapped into a form of socially-engaged art practice that emerged in the 1970s[18] and took root in the 1990s. In due course, and in part thanks to Bourriaud’s legitimising discourse, it flourished within museums in the 2000s. With the exception of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and possibly Liam Gillick and Pierre Huyghe, the work of the artists that Bourriaud collaborates with cannot be characterised as relational, but as object-based and spectacular. This also explains why, although the theory has been influential, it has also drawn much criticism in terms of Bourriaud’s theoretical rigour and the implications of his arguments.[19] Rather than support artists’ aims to disentangle the function of art as commodity, Bourriaud takes a step in the opposite direction by fetishising the concept of “relationship” itself:

When a collector purchased a work by Jackson Pollock or Yves Klein, he was buying, over and above its aesthetic interest, a milestone in a history on the move. He became the purchaser of a historical situation. Yesterday, when you bought a Jeff Koons, what was being brought to the fore was the hyper-reality of artistic value. What has one bought when one owns a work by Tiravanija or Douglas Gordon, other than a relationship with the world rendered concrete by an object, which, per se, defines the relations one has towards this relationship: the relationship to a relationship? (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 48)

Bourriaud addresses the collector and—playing the role of cultural entrepreneur—stresses the unique selling point of relational aesthetics. How does he stand in relation to the explicit intention of artists who resist the commodification of their work? While Bourriaud promotes the understanding of contemporary art, this is framed within an agenda to reinforce and extend the power of the institution. Considering Bourriaud’s theory of “relational form” Dean Kenning argues that Bourriaud is inattentive to the specific ways in which form is produced relationally, “relational forms become formulaic in Bourriaud’s theory”, the result for Kenning is that as artistic forms thus become interchangeable and “the works which illustrate best the relational role that art is seen as playing in society will be the most insipid”. Kenning regards this as an excuse to foreground the gallery as a site of social exchange, “reinforcing the performative authority of the art institution” (Kenning, 2006, p. 58).

The paradox of relational aesthetics is that whilst making claims for a more socially relevant type of practice, the art space itself becomes the zero degree condition of its functioning. (Kenning, 2006, p. 58)

The museum is identified with the work; the identity of the work seeps into the museum and the identity of the museum seeps into the work, but they are two entirely different things. The institution draws our attention first and foremost to the work of art as a work of art.

An institution of legitimisation

In many ways I think we are using up the symbolic capital of the museum. The core audience still comes for what the museum represented in the past rather than what it does now, so at some point they will give up, I imagine, as will many modernist-trained critics. (Esche and Lind, 2011)

In the early twentieth century, the avant-garde sets its critical sights on the institution of art with the conviction that art’s lack of social impact is to be blamed on its autonomy (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22). In Pascalian Meditations (2000), Bourdieu reveals that the dialectic between autonomy and heteronomy in art is in effect a compromise between the symbolic and the commercial character of the work of art. More significantly, Bourdieu argues that political power must justify itself through external legitimisation because “force cannot assert itself as such, as brute violence, an arbitrariness […] without justification”. Power therefore appeals to social institutions for justification, recognition and legitimacy. In order to provide legitimate recognition institutions must not be subject to coercion and they must be recognised and legitimate themselves (Bourdieu, 2000, pp. 104-105). Power thus appeals to artists and intellectuals, granting relative autonomy to institutions that provide its legitimation:

The prince can obtain a truly effective legitimation service from his poets, painters or jurists only in so far as he grants them the (relative) autonomy which is the condition for independent judgement but which may also be the basis for critical questioning. (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 105)

Bourdieu explains that the arts can provide “powerful instruments of legitimation” directly or indirectly.[20] But equally, and because the “apparent autonomy or misrecognized dependence may have the same effects as real independence”, the arts can also use their legitimating power to subvert power with “challenges to the self-evidences of common sense” (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 105). The field of art is thus a potential site for symbolic revolution. This is why, in due course, the progressive expansion and differentiation of the field is accompanied by institutionalisation as a means of control (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 106).

The institution of art is constituted—and henceforth functions—as a buffer zone, and this is the point at which art assumes the status of autonomy:

The historical avant-garde movements made clear the significance art as an institution has for the effect of individual works, and thereby brought about a shift in the problem. It became apparent that the social effect of a work of art cannot simply be gauged by considering the work itself but that its effect is decisively determined by the institution within which the work ‘functions’. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 90)

For Peter Bürger the autonomy of art accomplishes the movement towards art’s ineffectuality; if art belongs within a circumscribed field, it ceases to take place in the real world. The institutionalisation of art in a circumscribed field of its own conceals the instrumentalisation of art within the institution of art. The institution of art is a space of apparent freedom, but this freedom is latent. The historical avant-garde performed a negation of the institution of art, understood as:

…the productive and distributive apparatus and also to the ideas about art that prevail at a given time and that determine the reception of works. The avant-garde turns against both—the distribution apparatus on which the work of art depends, and the status of art in bourgeois society as defined by the concept of autonomy. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22)

In capitalist society, the market assumes an ideological function and “dominion-legitimating world pictures” lose theirs (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 23), this leaves the legitimating institutions with a loss of centre. The institution draws our attention first and foremost to the work of art as a work of art. The institutional context of art shifts our focus from the interpretation of the singular work of art to the problem of understanding art as such. If the authority of art institutions guarantees the status of art, then we are caught in a double bind. If the work of art is dependent on its context and if that context is invariably the gallery, the museum or the collection, then the work of art is tautological. Haacke argues that it is not merely a question of the physical properties of the museum or gallery that have an effect the work of art. More significantly, “the status and the meaning” of the institutional context “infects” the work of art (Haacke, 2007). Exhibition contexts are frames that seep into the object that they define.

Peter Bürger argues that the social role of art is not determined by artists’ intentions. The social effect of works of art is “decisively determined by the institution within which the works function” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 31). Bürger argues that although the attitude of neo-avant-garde artists “may perfectly well be avant-gardiste”, their art is nevertheless institutionalised as autonomous art. For Bürger, the neo-avant-garde institutionalises the avant-garde as art and “thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions”. Despite artists’ intentions, their work takes on the identity of “artistic manifestations” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 58). The art institution thus endures even in works of art that ostensibly intend to overcome the divisions between art and non-art.

According to Daniel Buren, the art institution serves an idealist function by perpetuating the universality of art (Buren, 1973, p. 68). The idealism of autonomous art renders art apolitical and divests it of critical content by sequestering it to an extra-social realm. At the same time, paradoxically, this is precisely the process by which art is functionalised. Within the art institution, art becomes instrumental in numerous ways. Whatever the values each individual work conveys, these become redirected by the museum and this is what art ends up being about: the direct association with power and prestige, which overrides anything the work might be doing. The museum comes across as benefactor providing aesthetic experience, entertainment and diversion. Such recuperation is lamentable because the artist’s subjective singularity is misrepresented and misapprehended as the voice of a powerful universality.

The context of art determines (in the sense of “limits, draws a line around”) the production of art and the meaning and value of art. It is a circular system which reinforces itself, if it were not for a constant influx of new artists (expendable and equivalent) it would stagnate. Art production is directly determined by museums, biennials, foundations, collections, art fairs, funding bodies, galleries and journals.

In the mid 1960s, Daniel Buren began to paint alternating white and coloured vertical stripes emulating the traditional fabric of French awnings. In 1967, he stopped painting but continued to use stripes on paper and other supports and in 1968, he began to affix them in public spaces (auffichages sauvages). For Buren the frame of reference of the work includes the surrounding architecture (“when we say architecture, we include the social, political and economic context”) as “the inevitable background, support and frame of any work” (Buren, 1996/1975, p. 319). In The Function of the Museum (1973), Buren argues that the art institution has a “mystical” role, it “instantly promotes to “Art” status whatever it exhibits […] thus diverting in advance any attempt to question the foundations of art”. Buren refers to the museum as “the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed”, the art institution frames and compromises the (critical intentions of the) work of art (Buren, 1973, p. 68):

In fact every work of art inevitably possesses one or several extremely precise frames. The work is always limited in time as well as in space. By forgetting (purposefully) these essential facts one can pretend that there exists an immortal art, an eternal work…. And one can see how this concept and the mechanisms used to produce it […] place the work of art once and for all above all classes and ideologies. (Buren, 1973, p. 68)

One of the ways in which the museum as an institution sustains the “idealistic nature” of art is through the deliberate “non-visibility […] of the various supports of any work (the work’s stretcher, the work’s location, the work’s frame, the work’s stand, the work’s price, the work’s verso or back, etc…)”. For Buren art (and by implication the artist) bears the responsibility of revealing the obscure process of the institutional framework: “This frame does not seem to worry artists who exhibit continually without ever considering the problem of the place in which they exhibit” (Buren, 1973, p. 68). Most artists seem to study, produce, exhibit and sell their work quite contentedly within the existing structure of the art institution. But, according to Buren:

…any work presented in that framework, if it does not explicitly examine the influence of the framework upon itself, falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency—or idealism. This idealism (which could be compared to Art for Art’s sake) shelters and prevents any kind of break. (Buren, 1973, p. 68)

For Hal Foster, artists practicing a critique of the institution in the 1970s responded to the necessity to “expose this false idealism of art […] for it became clear that its supposedly supplemental role of ‘preservation, enclosure and refuge’ actually preconditioned art production” (Foster, 1986, p. 101).

The museum as parergon

“Artists” as much as their supporters and their enemies, no matter of what ideological coloration, are unwitting partners in the art-syndrome and relate to each other dialectically. They participate jointly in the maintenance and/or development of the ideological make-up of their society. They work within that frame, set the frame and are being framed. (Haacke, 2006, p. 55)

The museum is a lacuna, it is a gap, nothing in itself, it acquires its meaning from the work that it hosts and exhibits to the public. This is why the space of the museum itself becomes invisible. Having shed the gilt frame, the work of art is now framed by the museum: “To paint something is to recess it in illusion, and dissolving the frame transferred that function to the gallery space” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 40). In The truth in painting (1987), Jacques Derrida uses the frame as a philosophical metaphor; the frame is the symbol of the parergon, as that which is external to the artwork but also part of it. Whereas the picture frame belongs neither to the painting nor the gallery walls, it is part of both:

parergon: neither work (ergon)nor outside the work [horsd’oeuvre], neither inside or outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work. (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 9)

For Derrida, the frame represents the distinctions we effectively institute in order to separate and recognise things. The parergon “comes up against, beside, and in addition to, the ergon” (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 54), it supplements the ergon. Whereas Kant discounts the frame as mere decoration, Derrida problematises Kant’s failure to account for what is “outside” the work. Namely, the discourse around art that in fact constitutes its significance (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 53). For Derrida, the parergon is everything that is traditionally dismissed as exterior to a work of art, therefore not essential to its meaning: it is the preface, catalogue, press release, review or critique. Crucially, there are additional factors involved in the production of art that we cannot discount, such as funding, sponsorship, selection, academic and institutional validation. These factors, understood as external to the work, encroach on and influence the production of art, the conditions of its display and consequently have a bearing on the meaning of the work.[21]

According to Derrida, the parergon—the discourse that frames the work—is what makes the work mean anything at all. The concept of the parergon thus challenges the convention that the work of art is a vessel of meaning and that signification lies within the work. Any attempt to suggest an essential, fixed meaning becomes destabilised with a shift in context (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 56). There is no meaning within the work itself, it is thus supplemented with “constructed” signification by what is exterior to it. Thus none of the plural and subjective interpretations of the work can be privileged over any other.

A frame is essentially constructed and therefore fragile: such would be the essence or truth of the frame. If it had any. […] The fragility of the frame is its “essential constructedness” or systemic precariousness, need for incessant recreation / its “lack of being” (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 73)

Duncan Reekie points out that in Renaissance theatre, carnival, pantomime and music hall the “framing techniques” used to indicate the border between the performance and reality were flexible conventions. Carnival and music hall allowed for irony, slippage and interplay between the modes of drama, including addressing and interacting with the audience: “Integrating elements of improvisation, myth and the anarchic subversion of the carnival, popular theatre invokes another order of reality – the marvellous”. Naturalist drama of the nineteenth and twentieth century replaced conventional frames with “institutional, technological and mimetic strategies”; these different registers were suppressed in naturalist theatre (Reekie, 2007, pp. 20-21).

Pirate copies of feature films on the black market have often been filmed in cinema theatres. These are usually poor copies, the image is blurred, the colours are muted, the contrast is high, the sound echoes and one is familiarly transported into the cinema theatre, the black silhouette of the latecomer blocks the screen momentarily, someone is chewing popcorn within earshot, the man in the row in front turns to say something to his companion. This has the effect of creating a distance between the viewer and the film, foregrounding it as a spectacle and downplaying its immersive effect. The viewing of pirated feature films inadvertently reactivates Bertold Brecht’s defamiliarisation technique.

Physical encounters with works of art occur primarily in museums or galleries. These are dedicated contexts for works of art and they contain other works of art, Andy Warhol exploited this fact with his Brillo Boxes (1964) which play off the other work. Boris Groys argues that everything in the private installation space of the artist becomes part of it, especially the audience (Groys, 2011). The work of Hans Haacke and Dan Graham highlights the containing effect of the art context, which infects everything. The capacity of the museum to bestow “art-ness” (Duncan, 1995, p. 110) on everything within its space by placing brackets around objects, bodies and events, de-contextualising and re-contextualising them. This environment creates endless opportunities for artists to exploit, only to be reappropriated as another art-exercise within the museum.

But isn’t this one of the more important functions of museums, to kill things, to finish them off, to give them the authority and thus distance from people by taking out of their real everyday context? Even over and above the will of the actors involved with any given museum, I think the structure of museums tend towards this kind of activity: historization. It is sort of a cemetery for art… (Obrist, 2008, pp. 120-121)

The institution as a productive apparatus

In his article Institutionalisation for all (2006), Dave Beech argues that artists today are thrown immediately into circulation as institutions take a more active role in the promotion of “emerging” artists:

Art’s institutions do not lag behind contemporary practice as they typically have since the emergence of modernism and the avant garde. Funding, retrospectives, sales, monographs, prizes, major public works, honours, professorships and trusteeships are not restricted to old-timers these days. Young art is welcomed without delay into art’s established institutions at a time when contemporary art is growing as an industry, extending its pull on the tourist economy, increasing the popular recognition of its leading practitioners (now celebrities) and developing global brands. (Beech, 2006, p. 7)

The industrial scale of the art world accommodates more artists than ever before, there are more jobs and opportunities for artists, we have never had it better; however artists are more dispensable than ever as well. Before artists can become established on the market, they must first seek legitimisation through the tier-system of art institutions on which they depend: art schools, galleries, journals etc. The criteria are not commercial, art is judged exclusively according to artistic criteria, or so the story goes. Art is absorbed into capitalist circulation through commodification and recuperation only once it is safely institutionalised. Corporations invest in artists who have a list of credentials.[22] Far from lagging behind the times, JJ Charlesworth suggests in Not about institutions, but why we are so unsure of them (2008), that institutions effectively constitute contemporary art practice because “Emerging art only emerges if powerful institutions allow it to” (Charlesworth, 2008).

The active aspect of institutional choice becomes more visibly unstable, however, when it addresses that thing called the ‘emerging artist’. What is an ‘emerging artist’? Where do they emerge from and what do they emerge into? […] the paradoxical aspect of such formulations of art as ‘emerging’ is that responsibility for art emerging is assigned to itself, or to any other agency other than the institution which in fact enables its emergence. We could argue that nowadays the institutions of presentation of contemporary art are strangely uncomfortable with openly declaring the power that they do in fact wield. […] Emerging art only emerges if powerful institutions allow it to. (Charlesworth, 2008)

According to Peter Bürger, the notion of the autonomy of art played a crucial role in the failure of the avant-garde to realise its goals. The avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde pitted themselves against the art institution, which acquires its status precisely from the concept of the autonomy of the aesthetic. It is therefore capable of absorbing any criticism in the form of anti-art and re-presenting it as an aesthetic experience, as art:

…it can be affirmed, with reasonable confidence, that as soon as a concept is announced, and especially when it is “exhibited as art,” under the desire to do away with the object, one merely replaces it in fact. The exhibited concept becomes idealobject, which brings us once again to art (Buren, 1996, p. 142)

For Rosalind Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market. Krauss claims that the art object has been “reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape” (Krauss, 1999, p. 15). Isabelle Graw also points out that, in the absence of artistic criteria, the “new power of the art market manifests itself, then, in the replacement of artistic criteria by economic imperatives” (Graw, 2006, p. 147). Paradoxically, art fairs appear to provide a more “neutral” exhibition space for the work of art to assert its own conditions of address. This is possibly because the evident commercial context has no pretensions to ostensible thematic and concealed ideological framings. Boris Groys argues in The Politics of Installation (2009) that the market is a more democratic space within which works of art can assert their own value:

…the art market appears to be more favorable than the museum or Kunsthalle to Modern, autonomous art. In the art market, works of art circulate singularized, decontextualized, uncurated, which apparently offers them the opportunity to demonstrate their sovereign origin without mediation. (Groys, 2009)

Whereas, art institutions must justify the works of art they exhibit and where “every discourse legitimizing an artwork […] can be seen as an insult to that artwork”, in the art market the work of art can assert its autonomy—irrespective of aesthetic taste and theoretical critique—and command its own price:

The sovereign decision of the artist to make an artwork beyond any justification is trumped by the sovereign decision of a private buyer to pay for this artwork an amount of money beyond any comprehension. (Groys, 2009)

Presumably Groys has the auction house in mind, however, he does not take into account is the intricate gate-keeping system against which a work of art must assert its “value”. According to Richard Bolton “the market can be manipulated deliberately. Important collectors can change the status of the work of artists merely by shuffling their collections” (Bolton, 1998, p. 27).

The notion of the autonomy of art perseveres today more than ever, veiling instrumental decisions in a cloak of ambiguous aesthetic judgements that merely serve to legitimise institutional decisions. This is evident in practices ranging from the unregulated commerce of the primary art-market, to the autonomy of the relatively new form of the independent curator—modelled on the figure of Harald Szeemann—who designs exhibitions of art based solely on his or her own subjective criteria.[23] The legitimising authority of the curator is in effect productive. JJ Charlesworth observes that recent discussions on the role of the “curator-as-author” acknowledge the “role of the contemporary art institution in producing an art scene, and not merely representing an already existing one” (Charlesworth, 2008).

Institutions have currently usurped the critical role of the artist via the mediating role of the curator. Often an artist him or herself, the curator mediates between artists, institutions and public thus representing an indeterminate hybrid figure, part institution, part artist. A distinctive brand of institutional critique is taken up by museums and art fairs themselves, which adhere rhetorically to the self-critical model of modern art. This is evident in contemporary institutional discourse and in the current proliferation of institutions inviting artists to practice institutional critique and hosting exhibitions, conferences and symposia on the critique of institutions.[24] This posture disguises these strategies of self-promotion and self-validation.

Neutralisation and accretion of value and sense

…in our museums, with modern painting hung beside that of the past, the latter enters into a comparable silence. It does so as soon as it is removed from its original context; out of that context its original message loses its meaning. So it is that, for us today, the beauty of the Old Masters’ art is similar in kind to that of modern painting, since we no longer have eyes or ears for the message that was once attached to it. We see something else today, we see that magic interplay of light that lies above or beneath the literal significance of the forms. What we perceive today in these majestic images is not the expression of a well-defined majesty, bound up with political or mythological constructions, but the expression of a majesty quite devoid of political implications. (Bataille, 1983/1955, p. 53)

In The Field of Cultural Production (1993), Pierre Bourdieu produces a theory on the structure of the field of cultural production and how it connects with the fields of power and class. He demystifies the symbolic struggle for the definition of art and the naturalisation of cultural practices. Bourdieu argues that the study of art history fails in its stated task because “the essential explanation of each work lies outside of each of them, in the objective relations which constitute this field” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 30). Instead of studying the art object as a discrete artefact, Bourdieu argues that:

The task is that of constructing the space of positions and the space of the position-takings in which they are expressed. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 30)

Bourdieu observes that every position in the field of art is defined by its relation to all the other positions which constitute the field. Even dominant positions depend on the overall space of positions. The structure of the relationships which constitute the field follows the structure of the distribution of capital which determines success in the field: “The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces”. The relations between positions defines the strategies which the occupants of the different positions use in their struggle to maintain and strengthen their positions (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 30). Bourdieu argues that because a “position-taking” within the field is relatively constituted, it is subject to changes in the field and “receives its distinctive value from its negative relationship with the coexistent position-takings to which it is objectively related and which determine it by delimiting it” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 31). This means that the work of art is subject to definitions and interpretations that are determined by the field as a whole:

The meaning of a work (artistic, literary, philosophical, etc.) changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader. (Bourdieu, 1993, pp. 30-31)[25]

The institutional context of art breaks down the relationships of the particular elements of a work of art, effectively disassociating works of art from their social context and political aspect. The apparent disconnection of the work from its context and its attachment to art history abstracts the work and presents it as an object free from ideology. Adorno argues that the history of art separates the “productive force” of art from the “real history” in which it is produced:

The heteronomy, which reception theory’s normative interpretation of phenomena foists on art, is an ideological fetter that exceeds everything ideological that may be inherent in art’s fetishization. Art and society converge in the artwork’s content [Gehalt], not in anything external to it. This applies also to the history of art. Collectivization of the individual takes place at the cost of the social force of production. In the history of art, real history returns by virtue of the life of the productive force that originates in real history and is then separated from it. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 228)

The aesthetic and art-historical categorisation of art does not leave it unscathed. The category of the aesthetic object delimits a reified sphere. Once consecrated within this sphere, works of art are removed from their existence in the world. The traditional time-lag between the production of the work of art, its circulation to an increasingly broader audience (beginning in the studio, the art school), and its eventual inclusion in the museum, followed the temporal recession of events into historical facts. Although it is impossible to reconstitute this history, or the doxa that constitutes the field of art at any point in time:

Ignorance of everything which goes to make up the ‘mood of the age’ produces a derealization of works: stripped of everything which attached them to the most concrete debates of their time […] they are impoverished and transformed in the direction of intellectualism or an empty humanism. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 32)

The contemporary art institution institutionalises and historicises art simultaneously. The formative effect of this orgy of production and dissemination on current art students is very difficult to predict. Bourdieu points out that a vast amount of information circulates and produces effects within any cultural field. In his particular example, he refers to the field of philosophy:

…what circulates between contemporary philosophers, or those of different epochs, are not only canonical texts, but a whole philosophical doxa carried along by intellectual rumour—labels of schools, truncated quotations, functioning as slogans in celebration or polemics—by academic routine and perhaps above all by school manuals (an unmentionable reference), which perhaps do more than anything else to constitute the ‘common sense’ of an intellectual generation. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 32)

These influences provide obvious reference points for other producers and they often perform their work on the unconscious, burrowing their way into the text of a book or between the frames of a film. Sometimes they are surreptitiously placed between the frames where the attentive observer will find them. Especially in the art world, references to formative influences—even discarded ones—have a role in the production of the field. A significant influence in the context of production is the oedipal complex: the work is always an aspirational response to another work.

Finally, the structure of the entire field is also subject to change as the result of change in the power relations that constitute the space of positions. And this also has the effect of constraining the production of the field. Bourdieu considers the transformation of the field of production when a new group with new ideas makes an appearance in the field and displaces “the universe of possible options; the previously dominant productions may, for example, be pushed into the status either of outmoded [déclassé] or of classic works” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 32). In the current lateral expansion of the field there are no discernible movements, influences come from all directions and rather than a progressive movement, the production of art follows localised flourishes. In this context, personal and subjective agendas are privileged over social and collective concerns in art practice. The field is one of professional competition rather than common aspiration. Bourdieu argues that given this account of the structure of field—and although we cannot entirely discount the possibilities for self-determination in the field of art—it is impossible:

…to make the cultural order [episteme] a sort of autonomous, transcendent sphere, capable of developing in accordance with its own laws. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 33)

For Adorno, normative interpretations impose heteronomy on art. We can see this in the display texts at the Tate Modern, which provide assertive interpretations of the art on display.[26] These authoritative statements are not supplemental or equal to other interpretations because they come directly from the mouth of the institution. They impose themselves on the audience, precluding active engagement. Cultural artefacts are effectively captured and ideologically re-directed by normative interpretations over democratic ones. Adorno argues that although works of art are “internally revolutionary”, all art has nevertheless the “tendency toward social integration”. Adorno is essentially referring to institutional integration, which:

…does not bring the blessings of justice in the form of retrospective confirmation. More often, reception wears away what constitutes the work’s determinate negation of society. (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 229)

The institution of art abstracts and aestheticises the work of art, allowing extraneous values to be attached to it: “Form works like a magnet that orders elements of the empirical world in such a fashion that they are estranged from their extra-aesthetic existence” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 226). It is not only art with purely formal objectives that is susceptible to accretion of value and ideology. Any work of art, as soon as it becomes the object of aesthetic judgement is a clean slate and can tell us nothing apparently about the real world:

Neutralization is the social price of aesthetic autonomy. However, once artworks are entombed in the pantheon of cultural commodities, they themselves—their truth content—are also damaged. In the administered world neutralization is universal. (Adorno, 2002/1970, pp. 228-229)

This problem has been addressed by artists throughout the twentieth century but the idealised value of art still persists, notably in the market. In his essay Enlightened Self-Interest: The Avant-Garde in the 80s (1998), Richard Bolton argues that in an information society—characterised by immaterial labour—capital is generated by the manipulation of signs in the form of investments, corporate takeovers, media spectacles, advertising and communication. At the same time, labour conflicts arising in the productive base are suppressed because the “success of the commodity depends upon its degree of detachment from reality, from labor […] the corporation replaces the individual as the author of the commodity” (Bolton, 1998, p. 42):

The object, abstracted, infused with aura, becomes a free-floating sign, and value becomes flexible, determined by manipulation of market. (Bolton, 1998, p. 42)

Politics and the war of culture

What is in our time the value of the aesthetic—of reception as well as production? Indeed, what is the point (political or otherwise) of culture itself in the first place? (Jameson, 1986, p. 44)

For Fredric Jameson, it is “culture’s radical self-doubt, the profound guilt of culture works at their own ‘elitist’ and (appropriately Kantian) un-practicality”, that spawns radical traditions eager to denounce art in its entirety (Jameson, 1986, p. 44). Jameson argues that although we can perform a critique of the “strategic cultural and ideological institutions” of art and literature, individual works will always escape these institutional approaches. In particular, we can analyse the historical terms of these institutions, scrutinise their institutional subsystems (the gallery, museum, art school, journals, etc.), and demystify their various ideologies (defences, theories etc.), however individual works of art escape this approach. This is because the ideology of the individual work of art is incommensurable with the ideology of the field of art in general.

Jameson reveals how the dialectics of autonomy and heteronomy at play within the institution of art enforce a distinction between autonomy and heteronomy, which excludes the later from artistic discourses and thereby masks the dynamics of the institution altogether. For Jameson, Hans Haacke’s work is a “solution” to this dilemma, because he includes within the work of art the excluded heteronomous (and parergonal) elements: the patrons, donors and museum trustees. According to Jameson, Haacke’s work draws the heteronomous determinants of art into the work of art. The work’s “content” can thus only be excluded as heteronomous “at the price of repudiating the installation itself and denying it any status as a ‘work of art’”, which is in fact what happened at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971 and at the Cologne Museum in 1974 (Jameson, 1986, p. 48). The letter written by Thomas M. Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum, to Hans Haacke in 1971 justifies the cancellation on the grounds that the “political” intentions of the work exceed the “professional competence” of the institution (Messer, 1971, pp. 248-249).

It is impossible to situate oneself critically within the art world without acknowledging the institutional frame and one’s own complicity with what it in fact stands for. On the other hand, the problem of the impact of the art institution on art practice is difficult for artists to negotiate without becoming self-conscious. Perhaps the only way to escape the context of the museum is to address it critically by practicing a type of institutional critique or site-specificity.

Although conceptual artists highlighted the politics of the museum, they also inadvertently helped to promote the institution, leading to the current practice whereby institutions formally invite artists to practice this critique. They limited the scope of art practice in hermetic and self-conscious investigations and introduced what Buchloh calls “the aesthetic of administration” (Buchloh, 1990). In this sense, institutional critique foregrounds the institution, which takes precedence as the disavowed centre of the structure of art as a language game. Finally, institutional critique becomes dependent on the museum and sets the precedent for the institutional privileging of art that is made inside the institution (site-specificity, performance, happening and event).

According to John Osborne, speaking at the panel discussion entitled Institutional critique: can the institution ever criticise? at the ICA (2008), institutional critique has become a “subconscious practice within the institution”. The significance of this outcome is that institutional critique is co-opted by museums as a strategy for their own self-promotion:

Institutional critique was the main art-institutional means for the political modernisation of its own institutions […] it is the medium of political modernisation and in that sense it is essentially a politically conservative but modernising function. (Osborne, 2008)

Institutional critique has provided the means whereby the institution reinvents itself. This reinvention is not the type that artists have in mind; it does not contain the radical promise of transformation with unlimited possibilities because it is informed by a neo-liberal agenda. As Patricia Bickers has pointed out, Haacke’s visitor surveys are currently used by museums as a “marketing device” (Haacke, 2007).[27] According to Osborne this modernisation:

…marks recognition by the institution and artists alike of the new kind of professionalism in art. It is not the professionalisation of artists which some people talk about. It is a new kind of professionalisation, and it is a new kind of recognition of a kind of managerial or self-managerial role as an essential institutional practice (Osborne, 2008)

Artists like Carey Young extend their critique to neo-liberalism, but can this critique overcome the prevalence of neo-liberalism in the very exhibition contexts that we encounter her work? Does this predicament amount to the irony of institutional critique or its cynical realism? Artists affirm and sanction the museum merely by exhibiting within it. This positive affirmation of the institution speaks louder than their negative critique, which becomes subverted and comes across as rhetorical posturing, hypocrisy or nonsense.

In his Installation Munster (Caravan), first exhibited in 1977 at Skulptur Projekte Münster, Asher presented a caravan parked on the streets of Munster that depended entirely on the museum for its artistic designation without even being in the institution. As Fraser points out, “nothing indicated that the caravan was art or had any connection to the exhibition. To casual passersby, it was nothing but a caravan” (Fraser, 2005, p. 281). How then are we to perceive the work as art? Speaking to students at the Cooper Union School of Art in 2007, Fraser explains that:

…it’s only the people who are going to the exhibition and go to the museum and pick up, or get the brochure, the catalogue of the exhibition, and go out and look for the trailer, who see it as art. To everybody else on the street, who might be standing next to those people, it’s just a trailer (Fraser, 2007)

Fraser argues that with Installation Munster, “Asher demonstrated that the institutionalization of art as art depends not on its location in the physical frame of an institution, but in conceptual or perceptual frames” (Fraser, 2005, p. 281). Fraser’s argument is that with Installation Munster Asher demonstrates that:

…the institution of art is not only “institutionalized” in organizations like museums and objectified in art objects. It is also internalized and embodied in people. It is internalized in the competencies, conceptual models, and modes of perception that allow us to produce, write about, and understand art, or simply to recognize art as art (Fraser, 2005, p. 281)

Far from demonstrating these things, Asher’s Munster installation only becomes a work of art if we read the museum catalogue or brochure. Asher is demonstrating that a work of art does not exist until it is institutionally validated. In his installation at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979, Michael Asher literally limited the work to materials specific to the architectural space of the institutional space itself. Asher removed aluminium panels from the museum facade and mounted them inside the museum.

Rigorously denying spatial and temporal transcendence, Asher’s works are constituted first of all within their own spatial, institutional context, the museum; and they become the performative articulation of their actually given historical time, the allocated exhibition period itself. (Buchloh, 2000/1987, p. 22)

Asher’s installations fail both as works of art and as a forms of critique; they are obscure, unrewarding, pointless and worst of all, they privilege the institution as the primary site of artistic production. John Welchman is visibly frustrated by artists’ apparent ignorance regarding how their work comes across and its long-term the consequences:

Could it be that there is something delusional in practices that are so attached to deconstructing the apparatuses of the museum—mostly from within the institution—yet still believe themselves to be “critical” according to some measure or judgment from the outside? Has critique been evaporated into absorption; and the era of installation and site-specificity ushered in during the 1990s digested the assumptions of Institutional Critique so thoroughly that the predicates of place have now become the first conditions of the artwork? (Welchman, 2006, p. 13-14)

In The Museum and the Monument: Daniel Buren’s Les Couleurs/Les Formes (2000), Buchloh suggests that Buren’s Les Couleurs: Sculptures (1977), striped flags mounted on buildings and visible from the Centre Pompidou, represents an attempt “at solving one of the most crucial problems in twentieth century art: the dialectic between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value” (Buchloh, 2000, p. 126). These installations by Buren and Asher articulate a subtle relationship between formalism and Dadaist intervention and can be construed either way.

The institution of art determines what is produced and exhibited through forms of direct censorship and indirect methods of positive and negative reinforcement, which enforce artists’ self-censorship.[28] Herbert Schiller argues in his book Culture, Inc. The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (1989), that the “apparent absence” of control in the sphere of culture is achieved by the internalisation of values:

It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties for doing what is not expected, and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values. (Schiller, 1989, p. 8)

The institution selects through exclusion, but on what criteria? Justification in art can never be definitive because all aesthetic values are subjective. The institution of art dictates but it also suggests, coaxes and propositions artists into making work with calls, project rooms, residencies, commissions, etc. The institution also educates artists, and so on.

Culture is both an industry and a battleground. The institution of art has entirely ceded to material objectives and political agendas and can no longer claim a critical position in relation to capitalism. Whereas the autonomy of art is founded on the promise of “aesthetic revolution”, it is currently subject to corporate instrumentalisation and control. Throughout modernity, we have examples of artists who established their own alliances with power (Bourdieu, 1996, pp. 51-60). Since the late twentieth century, curators and administrators mediate between artists and power. Exhibition sponsorship is arranged by museums on behalf of artists, who have no control of the alliances they enter into as a result of exhibiting in institutions. The political partnerships of museums or galleries are not considered problematic, apparently they have no bearing on art. Art exists in an abstract, reified sphere, it is not real.

If art continues to claim the avant-garde project—which includes the ambition to reject all forms of domination and exploitation—then artists need to resist the colonisation of art by the powers that it has repeatedly rejected. Artists need to reassert art as a free and potentially revolutionary space within society. Art is not just a harmless and self-indulgent game for artists and patrons alike, because in every game there is in the end a winner. Art is as much a struggle in terms of exclusively aesthetic goals, as it is a struggle for control over its own territory. The power that individuals wield in the art world is upheld by the entire population that makes up the art world. The intricate alliances in the art world are politically charged because they constitute the struggle for power. Power within the art world is constituted through its structure, which is relational as well as hierarchical. The field’s hierarchical structure is composed at the top by powerful collectors, dealers and museum directors and politicians. Next is a group of supporting collaborating curators, dealers, collectors, artists, museum directors, gallery directors, critics, theorists, writers and politicians. Following them a less powerful but crucial group of gallery directors, curators, academics, museum staff, journalists, teachers, entrepreneurs, celebrities, students and—most significantly—lots of artists. This last group function like proselytisers who consciously or unconsciously transmit the discourse of their superiors to their own spheres of influence: artists, journalists, the public and crucially, the students. The spaces where this dissemination of dominant ideas intensifies includes art schools, universities, conferences, museum and gallery panel discussions, journals and the media, exhibitions and web-sites.

The three fields: society, power and art

It is clear that curatorial practice today goes well beyond mounting art exhibitions and caring for works of art. Curators do a lot more: they administer the experience of art by selecting what is made visible, contextualize and frame the production of artists, and oversee the distribution of production funds, fees, and prizes that artists compete for. Curators also court collectors, sponsors, and museum trustees, entertain corporate executives, and collaborate with the press, politicians, and government bureaucrats; in other words, they act as intermediaries between producers of art and the power structure of our society… (Vidokle, 2010)

Karl Marx links the control of material production in society to control over the production and distribution of ideas. He argues that insofar as the ruling class determines “the extent and compass of an epoch”, it also controls the intellectual production of that epoch, its members rule “as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch” (Marx, 1998, p. 67).

In The Painting of Modern Life (1985), TJ Clark describes “ideologies” as distinct and singular “orders” of knowledge, which are imposed on representations and behaviours, ways of “providing certain perceptions and rendering others unthinkable, aberrant or extreme”. Ideologies, for Clark are singular constructs tied to class-specific attitudes and experiences and are “therefore at odds, at least to some extent, with the attitudes and experience of those who do not belong to it”. Although, Clark holds that class “is regularly made out of the many and the various” he also affirms the existence of antagonism between ideological frameworks belonging to different classes. The function of ideology therefore is “as far as possible to dispose of the very ground for such conflicts” (Clark, 1985, p. 8). Herbert Marcuse maintains that art provides ways for power to assert itself (Marcuse, 2009/1968, pp. 71, 97), Benjamin Buchloh sees art as “a tool of ideological control and cultural legitimation” (Buchloh, 1990, p. 143), Adrian Piper uses the term “weaponry”.[29] In The Rules of Art (1996), Pierre Bourdieu affirms the existence of power struggles “for the monopoly of the definition of the mode of legitimate cultural production” (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 227). These power struggles do not just take place amongst artists; they take place amongst the legitimising institutions of art:

The producer of the value of the work of art is not the artist but the field of production as a universe of belief which produces the value of the work of art as a fetish by producing the belief in the creative power of the artist. (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 229)

In The Field of Production (1993), Bourdieu sketches an image of the relationship of art to society with a diagram of three interlocking social spheres and their power dynamics: the social totality, the field of power and the field of art. Each sphere has its own hierarchy, indicated by a dominant pole on the one end and a dominated pole on the other. The field of power is situated within the dominant pole of the social totality. The field of art in turn, is governed by a “double hierarchy”, it occupies the dominant pole of society and it simultaneously occupies a dominated position within the field of power. But how is this balance of power allocated and articulated? Bourdieu argues that this double hierarchy is a “struggle” between two opposing principles of assigning value or “principles of hierarchization” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40).

The field of art controls the production of symbolic capital and its “principle of hierarchization” is autonomy. Bourdieu defines of “autonomy” in this instance as “fulfils its own logic as a field” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39). The field of art thus retains a degree of autonomy regarding the economic and political forces in society. Pulling in the opposite direction is the “heteronomous principle of hierarchization”, which is “favourable to those who dominate the field economically and politically” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40) and is indicated by official success. For Bourdieu success is “measured by indices such as book sales, number of theatrical performances, etc. or honours, appointments, etc.” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38). Thus the heteronomous principle would dominate the art-field unchallenged if the field lost its autonomy and became subject to ordinary laws prevailing in the economic and political field.

Equally, in the field of art the autonomous principle of hierarchisation “would reign unchallenged if the field of production were to achieve total autonomy with respect to the laws of the market” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38). Paradoxically, the more autonomous the field of art becomes, the more independent it becomes from the field of power and the more autonomous artists become from institutional and ideological constraints. Although as Bourdieu argues: “whatever its degree of independence, it continues to be affected by the laws of the field which encompasses it, those of economic and political profit” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39) and this is why the autonomy of art is always “relative”.

For Bourdieu the “most perfectly autonomous sector of the field of cultural production” is one where production addresses an audience of other producers, epitomised by the Symbolist movement. In the most autonomous sectors of cultural production there is an inversion of principles of common economies, Bourdieu describes this as a game of “loser wins”. For example, in economic terms the autonomous field “excludes the pursuit of profit and does not guarantee any sort of correspondence between investments and monetary gains”, in terms of power “it condemns honours and temporal greatness” and in terms of institutional authority, “the absence of any academic training or consecration may be considered a virtue” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39).

The more autonomous the field becomes, the more favourable the symbolic power balance is to the most autonomous producers and the more clear-cut is the division between the field of restricted production, in which the producers produce for other producers, and the field of large-scale production… (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39)

The paradox is that the contemporary art world—as the most lucrative sector of the culture industry—has essentially become a field of “large-scale production”. This is not only evident in large-scale exhibitions and sprawling museums but also “factories” for the mass production of the work of artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. In Bourdieu’s scheme, the heteronomous principle of hierarchisation functions to screen the field of art from social forces. The field of power asserts the heteronomous principle as a value in the field of art, which is a field of institutional authorisation and “multiple authorship” (Groys, 2008, p. 96). So interestingly, the buffer zone that in bourgeois society traditionally encircles and protects art, now converts it into a field of mass-production, with the associated division of labour between art-making, curating, research, education, marketing, promotion, fund-raising, etc. in the various museum departments each with its experts and trained staff.

The program of the visual industry implies that visuality and its meanings are no longer produced by singular protagonists (artists, galleries, curators). Instead responsibility for the production and distribution of images and their content lies in the hands of larger entities, including international franchises and multi-national conglomerates. (Graw, 2006, pp. 146-147)

Analysing the relations between artists and mediators such as agents, dealers, gallery directors or publishers, Bourdieu describes the later as “equivocal figures”: through them, the logic of the economic field enters the autonomous field. These figures must posses “economic dispositions” but also qualities that are similar to those of the artists “whose work they valorize and exploit” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39):

…this favours the relationship of trust and belief which is the basis of an exploitation presupposing a high degree of misrecognition on each side. These ‘merchants in the temple’ make their living by tricking the artist or writer into taking the consequences of his or her statutory professions of disinterestedness. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40)

Bourdieu argues that “authenticity” in the art field is demonstrated by the absence of guarantee of strictly economic or political rewards: the art world is structured in such a way, that those who enter it must demonstrate that they “have an interest in disinterestedness” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40). There is however an economic logic in the field, but it is a reverse logic involving the investment of belief and commitment:

There are economic conditions for the indifference to economy which induces a pursuit of the riskiest positions in the intellectual and artistic avant-garde, and also for the capacity to remain there over a long period without any economic compensation. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40)

This group also includes curators and other institutional figures who mediate between artist and public and who barter the symbolic capital of the work in exchange for economic, political and social rewards within the sphere of art and beyond. Bourdieu alludes enigmatically to something that is crucial for our discussion:

This explains the inability of all forms of economism, which seek to grasp this anti-economy in economic terms, to understand this upsidedown economic world. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40)

Bourdieu is implying that the principle of instant gratification which governs in the field of power has limited bearing in the field of art, which is structured according to an inverse economic logic. The insistence on applying the “heteronomous principle of hierarchization” in the art world—as has been the case in the music industry—creates a large-scale cultural industry, a powerful mainstream. Being thus at odds with the disinterested values of the field, this mainstream promotes a climate of estrangement amongst the producers. In the music industry, this process led to productive resistance, which librated the producers from their dependence on legitimisation from the mainstream as they printed their own CDs and organised their own gigs. This process resulted in the diminishing value of the mainstream and the once bloated record companies found themselves struggling to survive. The overall result was the disintegration of the entire centralised music industry into self-governing networks.

The politics of art

“An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. (Chesterton, 2005/1908, p. 8)

Bourdieu describes the field of art as a struggle between two principles, the heteronomous principle and the autonomous principle. The struggle between the competing forces of heteronomy and autonomy takes place within the institution of art even before it takes place within the work of art.

For Peter Bürger, art “lives off the tension” between autonomy and its social content (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 25). He does not suggest that they are incompatible, on the contrary, “the autonomy status certainly does not preclude the artist’s adoption of a political position; what it does limit is the chance of effectiveness” (Bürger, 2007/1974, pp. 25-26). Adorno considers the dialectics of autonomy and heteronomy in relation to the work of art itself, not in the context of the political and economic relations that constitute the field of art, thus obscuring the inherent congruence between artists who make art-for-art’s-sake and those who believe in the social role of art. There is no clear separation between autonomy and heteronomy, their relationship is dialectical. Given that artists occupy a dominated position in the institution of art, there is always the pressure of external economic or political interests.

Ranciere dispels the distinction between political and non-political art as a fallacy, yet he too considers heteronomy and autonomy in terms of the art object, not the structure of the field. But as we have seen, the work of art is a fetish, although it embodies the collaborative efforts of everyone in the field, it does not reveal the power relationships at play in the field, nor the political choices of the individual agents in the field.

Inevitably, the commitment of socially engaged artists like Beveridge and Burns or autonomous artists like Judd and Flavin is to art. Bourdieu argues that socially engaged art shares with autonomous art “a radical rejection of the dominant principle of hierarchy” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40, note 12). In political terms, to consider the principles at play within the work of art without considering the principles at play at the level of power is speculative at best. Because the power structure of the field determines the production and representation of the field. It renders its own role invisible by disavowing this power:

The state of the power relations in this struggle depends on the overall degree of autonomy possessed by the field, that is, the extent to which it manages to impose its own norms and sanctions on the whole set of producers, including those who are closest to the dominant pole of the field of power and therefore most responsive to external demands (i.e. the most heteronomous); this degree of autonomy varies considerably from one period and one national tradition to another, and affects the whole structure of the field. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 40)

So we can safely say that currently, the field is characterised by a very low degree of autonomy. Which makes Bourdieu’s claim even more urgent: he argues that the power configuration in the field of at ultimately rests on the value of art for the dominant field in its struggle for power, more specifically:

…in the struggle to conserve the established order and, perhaps especially, in the struggle between the fractions aspiring to domination within the field of power (bourgeoisie and aristocracy, old bourgeoisie and new bourgeoisie, etc.), and on the other hand in the production and reproduction of economic capital (with the aid of experts and cadres). (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 41)

If we follow Bourdieu’s reasoning, then art is one more weapon in the political struggle of the dominant classes. This shines some light on the relationship between art and politics in the institution of art, and the resulting impact on the role of the artist within this configuration. This is not a novel idea, but the definition of the artistic field as “a field of positions and a field of position-takings” avoids reductive interpretations of the type that endeavour to gauge the critical impact of the singular work of art, and equally, the automatic condemnation of profit-making or commercial activity. It also avoids the reductive polarisation between “the charismatic image of artistic activity as pure, disinterested creation by an isolated artist” and ethical or instrumental agendas (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 34). In other words, we need not resort to conspiracy theories. The position that individual agents or institutions occupy within a system certainly determines their behaviour within it. Additionally, it follows that these individuals or institutions aim to achieve independence and stability, in other words, they will try to maintain control over their status by consolidating their power and influence with others in the field. The position that individual agents or institutions occupy within the field is determined by and determines how much influence they have. Bourdieu argues that the field of cultural production is the site of struggles; at stake is the power to impose not only the dominant definitions of the artist but also those who are entitled to define the artist (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42).

Bourdieu’s positive argument is that there is “no other criterion of membership of a field than the objective fact of producing effects within it” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42).[30] It follows then, that even attempts to restrict the redefinitions of the field by imposing conditions of entry can be subverted: “polemics imply a form of recognition; adversaries whom one would prefer to destroy by ignoring them cannot be combated without consecrating them” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42). The institution’s most effective weapon against undesirable competition is feigned indifference.

When Bourdieu refers to the “boundary of the field is a stake of struggles” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42), he is not merely referring to the boundary of inclusion within the field of art. He is referring to the three boundaries between the three social fields: between the field of power and the social totality which it dominates, between the cultural field and the social totality and between the field of power and the cultural field. The most disputed boundary of all, according to Bourdieu, is the one between the field of cultural production and the field of power (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 43)

Bourdieu argues that the homology between oppositions that structure the field of art and oppositions that structure the field of class relations may produce “ideological effects which are produced automatically whenever oppositions at different levels are superimposed or merged”. But there are also struggles within the field of power itself, which produce “partial alliances”, the struggles within the field of art are therefore “always overdetermined and always tend to aim at two birds with one stone” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 44). The complexity that is the result of the superimposition of these various conflicts and allegiances goes a long way in explaining the ambiguity of the relationship between art and politics as it is regarded within the field of art. It has less to do with the intentions of artists concerning the work of art itself, and more to do with the parergonal elements of art practice, which have a direct bearing on the work of art. For example, the relationship (of trust) between artists and dealers or curators who represent the artwork to the public. Or the choices that artists must make between participating in an exhibition or not, accepting a commission or not and a multitude of singular choices, the consequences of which may serve to reinforce the heteronomous principles of the field, with the artists’ endorsement. Bourdieu explains that the individual artists or groups within the productive field of art are not immune to the attractions of the heteronomous field (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 41); artists constantly negotiate the tension between the impulse toward heteronomy and the impulse toward autonomy (and their respective rewards). This is what constitutes the dynamic space of artists’ dilemmas and choices. Bourdieu argues that by responding to the logic of competition within the field, artists adjust to the expectations of the various positions in the field of power, without making conscious decisions (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 45). For example, the most common scenario is the artist who considers the benefits of gallery representation;[31] these include the possibility of increased income and visibility (heteronomous values), which will enable the artist to produce new work, thus satisfying the artists’ autonomous values. However, the artist soon discovers that this is not actually how things turn out; quite often it is the artist who brings visibility to the gallery and the sale of a work of art may cover the artist’s associated expenses, but a very small proportion of artists make enough of a profit from sales to maintain a studio.

Although the solidarity of artists (“who occupy the economically dominated and symbolically dominant position within the field of cultural production”) with the “economically and culturally dominated positions within the field of class relations” is based on “homologies of position”, they are also divided by “profound differences in condition” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 44), which is the source of many ironies in the field of art. However, Bourdieu points out that artists can use their power to articulate critical proposals about the world:

The fact remains that the cultural producers are able to use the power conferred on them, especially in periods of crisis, by their capacity to put forward a critical definition of the social world, to mobilize the potential strength of the dominated classes and subvert the order prevailing in the field of power. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 44)

What are the politics of art? What informs artists’ ideological choices, what are they based on? Are they political ideologies? If we follow Bourdieu, the traditional values that artists apply to each other are autonomous values, for example, the condemnation of material gains and the approval of earned recognition. Artists are not socialists, democrats or liberals when it comes to choices about art, whether these choices are intrinsic to the work or parergonal choices, such as whether to participate in a specific exhibition or go for gallery representation.

When we say “autonomy”, we mean “art is its own politics”. But artists do not institutionalise their politics. Adorno’s concept of autonomy characterises the designation “artist” as a political ontology. The etymology of “autonomy” emphasises self-legislation.[32] Art is an autonomous sphere because artists create their own rules and they defend their right to create their own rules. Their “precarious” condition insists on this right; artists are not answerable because artists do not get a paycheck. Unlike curators, artists do not ask for permission.

The work of an artist is considered inauthentic if it is at odds with the artist’s life-style. This self-consciousness can be traced back to Théophile Gautier, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Chris Burden, Andy Warhol. After Warhol, artists increasingly identify as professionals. Artists are well-educated, with a string of credentials they promote their unique brand of autonomy. They self-consciously negotiate their autonomy, hand it over as a commodity in exchange for recognition. On the other hand, if artists do not compete on the professional level they will not be able to produce and exhibit their work.

Exploding Cinema was initially defined by a set of strategies aimed against limitations to artists’ freedom. It is astonishing that after 20 years these strategies are still crucial. What does it reveal? It helps to identify some of the major limitations of the art institution and it shows that very little has changed since 1991.

How do we make a connection with a historical text or context? We make a subjective connection. This is why we probably do not realise that certain epiphanies have already resurfaced numerous times; it is just that our attention was elsewhere. Epiphanies resurface when they are necessary, because without the connecting link we fail to recognise any similarity with our own experience. Paradigm shifts and revolutions follow similar patterns: any set of premises will eventually become redundant but in the meantime it has become sedimented and institutionalised, a way of life is built on it and interests coagulate around it. This is why any set of premises and the structures around it must be forcibly removed and replaced when it no longer serves a purpose. The notion of the autonomy of art must be replaced with the concept of the autonomy of the artist.


[1] Affichage sauvage (1969), Summershow, Seth Siegelaub Gallery, Paris, Affichage sauvage (1970), International Biennial, Tokyo, Within and Beyond the Frame (1973), John Weber Gallery, New York.

[2] See Dan Flavin’s Untitled (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) and Untitled (to Piet Mondrian through his preferred colors, red, yellow and blue) (both 1986), at the exhibition Making Histories Changing Views of the Collection (2011), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

[3] See the exhibition The Eye of the Storm: Works in situ by Daniel Buren (2005), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Architecture, contre-architecture: transposition (2010), In situ project, Mudam Luxembourg. According to the museum press release, Buren is “subverting, not without a certain irony, the invitation to exhibit” at the museum, but he is also “emphasizing certain architectural characteristics of the museum” <>.

[4] Documenta X (1997), curated by Catherine David and Documenta XI (2002), curated by Okwui Enwezor.

[5] For example the exhibition Uncertain States of America, Serpentine Gallery (2006), curated by Daniel Birnbaum and Hans Ulrich Obrist, culminating in the exhibition New Order at the White Cube (2011), which accumulated a broad collection of work characterised by the predominantly grey and rough patina of “political art” aesthetics behind the black glass of the hermetic white cube in London’s Mason’s Yard.

[6] Despite his protests, Duchamp facilitated this recuperation by authorising a total of fifteen replicas of the urinal. Three replicas were authorised between 1950 and 1963: the 1950 New York Reproduction requested by the Sidney Janis Gallery (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the 1953 Paris Reproduction was lost and the 1963 Stockholm Reproduction (Moderna Museet). In 1964, Duchamp authorised a limited edition series of eight urinals and four proofs, fabricated in Milan by gallerist Arturo Schwarz (Durantaye and Hollander, 2007).

[7] The term “self-institutionalisation” is confusing because artists’ projects, as Maria Lind points out, do not qualify as institutions because they are “too small and volatile” (Lind, 2009. p. 27). Artist’s collectives are volatile and more significantly, usually unhierarchical and defined by tacit rules and informal procedures.

[8] Since the “death of the author”, we know that we cannot refer to the artist, besides artists are notoriously resistant to explaining the “meaning” of their work. The work of art embodies the artists’ intentions and one of the reasons we value art is for its capacity to generate potentially infinite interpretations.

[9] Shapiro, Meyer (1968). The Still-Life as Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh. In The reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein 1878-1965. New York: Springer.

[10] Against the view that works of art are self-sufficient artefacts, Hal Foster argues that the abstract art of Peter Halley represents capitalism: “it is the abstractive processes of capital that erode representation and abstraction alike. And ultimately it may be these processes that are the real subject, and latent referent, of this new abstract painting” (Foster, 1986, p. 139). David Carrier argues that paintings are “irretrievably bound up with the social structure in which they are created […] today’s contemporary abstract paintings refer to the capitalist system in which they are commodities” (Carrier, 1988, p. 52).

[11] International Exhibition of Surrealism, Galerie Beaux-Arts, Paris.

[12] First Papers of Surrealism, 551 Madison Avenue, New York.

[13] Similarly, any critique of this fetishization must be carried out within the work itself, in other words we must not critique the mere fact that it has become a fetish (Adorno, 1970/2002, p. 22).

[14] The Journal for Artistic Research (JAR) is an international, online, open access peer-reviewed journal organised by the Society of Artistic Research for the “identification, publication and dissemination of artistic research and its methodologies”, JAR website <>. Although JAR considers the status of art research to be “still hotly debated”, this opinion is voiced from within an established organisation for the promotion of art research. The cross-over between art and other fields including politics, commerce and research was debated at ART &…, a symposium organised by Alun Rowlands and John Russell (November 2007, ICA, London). “The contemporary discourses of art cannot be conceived of as an autonomous specialism: Art, but as a space of transversality and connectivity”, <>.

[15] See also Agamben, 1999, p. 42.

[16] In Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies (2010), Groys argues that art is no longer an unaliented activity distinct from industrial labour because we no longer identify art as the unique trace of the artist’s body. Groys observes that the readymade opens up the possibilities for works of art not only to be produced in an “alienated, quasi-industrial manner, but also to allow these artworks to maintain an appearance of being industrially produced” (Groys, 2010).

[17] These public discussions often tend to be exercises in public relations rather than sincere investigations or sharing of information, the real issues are often glossed over in mutual legitimation and anecdote.

[18] Bourriaud refers to Josef Beuys (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 40), but equally this tendency was present in the work of the Artists’ Placement Group (1968-1975), Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson (East London Health Project, 1978-1981 and Docklands Community Poster Project, 1981-1991), Stephen Willats (West London Resource Project Public Monitor, 1973) and others.

[19] See Ranciere, 2009; Bishop, 2004; Martin, 2007/2006 and Kenning, 2006.

[20] Jacques-Louis David, Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Rodchenko, Arno Breker and Shepard Fairey have legitimised power directly, but indirect legitimisation through corporate sponsorship and community art is just as effective.

[21] At Tate Britain we are welcomed by “BP British Art Displays” banners on every threshold. Although British Petroleum sponsorship covers only the museum’s display expenses—which for activist collectives such as Liberate Tate <> is adequate cause for protest—everything in the museum carries the designation “BP”. See also the BP website <>.

[22] “We wanted to invite artists to work here with the architecture and create artworks that relate specifically to the building, the Lufthansa identity and the construction process. We therefore selected artists who are on the brink of an important stage in their careers. Lufthansa will continue to follow their progress.” Frankfurt Lufthansa Aviation Center website <>.

[23] Marc Spiegler writes in the Art Newspaper that curators fashion their careers by “becoming the new stronghold for validation of taste. The curator is also closer to the artist, because where the critic is trying to be ‘objective’ the curator is clearly subjective” (Spiegler, 2005).

[24] The talk Institutional critique: can the institution ever criticise? was part of the series of events entitled 60 Years of Curating at the ICA in association with the London Consortium and London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise, London in October 2008. The blurb for the event states: “In 2005 Martha Rosler restaged her piece from 1973, Garage Sale. The exhibition offered a piece of institutional critique on object festishism, the act of buying and selling, and the notion of an ‘art exhibition’. However, Rosler is now a known entity, an institution in herself. Is all critique eventually undone, institutionalised, aestheticised?” (ICA, 2008).

[25] Bourdieu considers parody and pastiche as the fate of a cultural artefact taken out of context (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 31).

[26] Test Sites (2006), Carsten Holler’s Unilever commission was composed of three gigantic slides, the audience could use them to shuttle from the top floors to ground level in the Turbine Hall. According to Tate Modern, these slides “question human behaviour, perception and logic, offering the possibility for self-exploration in the process”. We are also told that they “are impressive sculptures in their own right, and you don’t have to hurtle down them to appreciate this artwork” (Tate, 2006).

[27] Hans Haacke’s first Visitors’ Profile was intended for his 1971 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, which was cancelled. In 1970, he exhibitied MOMA Poll at the exhibition Information, Museum of Modern art, New York, followed by Visitor’s Profile 2 (1973), at the John Weber Gallery, New York.

[28] See Bourdieu and Haacke, 2005, pp. 2-10 on the relationship between censorship and self-censorship.

[29] Piper argues that “Galleries and museums are political arenas in which strategies of confrontation and avoidance are calculated, diplomacy is practiced, and weaponry is tested, all in the service of divergent, and often conflicting, interests” (Piper, 1996/1980, p. 43).

[30] Blogging is a good example, art journalism and blogs have achieved broader popularity than art journals, leading those journals to imitate arts blogs in their own websites.

[31] Generally understood as a partnership—if we go by the standard 50/50 share in sales—however, artists’ relationship with their gallery is rarely a relationship negotiated on equal terms.

[32] “Autonomy”: 1. the quality or state of being self-governing; especially the right of self-government 2. self-directing freedom and especially moral independence. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2011).

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