The period between the 1940s and 1970s saw a radical expansion of art into public space; it took the form of protest, confrontation and provocation. This was an international phenomenon and ranged from groups like Cobra, the Lettrists and the Situationist International in Paris to the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York; the Gutai Art Association, Butoh and Angura theatres in Japan; COUM Transmissions, Artists’ Placement Group and the Film-makers’ Co-op in London. There was Fluxus, the Viennese Actionists, Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts and Richard Long, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson’s forays into the landscape.

What are the factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs, where artists seek approval and support from the very authorities they purportedly seek to challenge? Where art is ubiquitous but neatly institutionalised, safe and predictable. Art fairs supplement their commercial function with critical components, in the form of panel discussions and entertainment value, with the recuperation of performance art as spectacle.[1] The art world appears to be constantly transformed by the appearance of new artists, new trends and new spaces. However, the conventions of the art world and the major centres of power remain consistently the same. Andrea Fraser points out that affirmations of the positive changes that have taken place within the art world since the 1970s do not account for the persistent underlying distributions of power within the art world that are legitimated by these positive changes (Fraser, 2005, p. 104).

…the enormous expansion of museum audiences, celebrated under the banner of populism, has proceeded hand in hand with the continuous rise of entrance fees, excluding more and more lower-income visitors, and the creation of new forms of elite participation with increasingly differentiated hierarchies of membership, viewings, and galas (Fraser, 2005, p. 104)

Paradoxically, it is critical, confrontational or experimental art exhibited in alternative, independent and artist-run spaces, which sustain the radical profile of contemporary art and the mainstream market, even though the later thrives on the sale of established and secure investments. Since the beginning of the art-market bubble in the 1980s, art is in “crisis”. The conceptual artists’ dematerialised critique was especially vulnerable to recuperation and the spectacular subversive complicity of the postmodernists proved particularly suited to commodification. Regardless of its oppositional premises, critical work is easily recuperated by the very structures under critique. Jean Baudrillard argues that subversive tactics are meaningless because “transgression and subversion never get ‘on the air’ without being subtly negated as they are: transformed into models, neutralised into signs, they are eviscerated of their meaning” (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 173). This paradoxical outcome is attributed to the equivocation and ironic distance of postmodernism. Jurgen Habermas argues that despite its subversive premises, postmodernism reinforces the values of bourgeois art and capitalism:

More or less in the entire Western world a climate has developed that furthers capitalist modernization processes as well as trends critical of cultural modernism. The disillusionment with the very failures of those programs that called for the negation of art and philosophy has come to serve as a pretense for conservative positions. (Habermas, 1983, pp. 13-14)

Benjamin Buchloh similarly argues that artists’ appropriation of marketing and consumer techniques effectively comes across as an affirmation of capitalism, because “even the mere thought and the slightest gesture of opposition appear dwarfed and ludicrous in the face of the totalitarian control and domination by spectacle” (Buchloh, 2000, pp. xxi-xxii). The corporate appropriation of art and the collusion between art and business has been thematised in public discussions and artists’ critiques alike. Despite these developments, the art world seems to continue ever more productively with business as usual.

Interest and ambition

What does the artist want besides subsistence? Is the artist’s final goal money? If not, what is it? Love? Fame (i.e. temporary notoriety)? Immortality? (Art Workers’ Coalition, 1969)

Artistic ambition is usually framed as a professional anxiety, but competitiveness and competitions do not sit comfortably in a field that promotes the singularity of its products. Professional agendas drive artistic practice; but they also establish the fundamental values of art because they are affirmed daily in practice. In his essay Money, Disembodied Art, and the Turing Test for Aesthetics (1997), Julian Stallabrass surveys contemporary art: “a vista at once chaotic and strangely uniform” with a feeling that art is currently in a great deal of trouble:

…high culture appears to have pulled up at a dead end, though somehow artists still carry on making things […] culture is stripped of the narrative of modernism, of the promise of a happy ending, and when even the liberatory promise of postmodernism has declined into market-niche relativism, it is hard to know how, where or indeed why to proceed. (Stallabrass, 1997, p. 70)

For Stallabrass, one of the valid responses to this situation is “an ethical philistinism” in the form of “a principled refusal of culture” (Stallabrass, 1997, p. 69). The art world is at once a fascinating scene of rich diversity and a tightly structured, predictable and impenetrable procession of exhibitions, distinctions and prices. Since 2008, Beaconsfield Gallery and City & Guilds Art School in London have organised a series of discussions titled Art & Compromise in order to address the various forms of compromise that enter into art practice, as well as the “criteria that might be used to condemn or commend these effects”, the following blurb provides a background to the aims of this series:

The 20th century concept of the artist as a politically alienated idealist has undergone significant shifts in recent years. Is there any form of moral obligation still within art’s purpose? What price integrity? Can the negotiations of compromise be catalysts for creative invention? (Beaconsfield, 2011)

This conception of the artist as a “politically alienated idealist” is completely outdated, eclipsed by the increased professionalisation of art practice. The questions facing artists today do not revolve around the ambiguous demand of a “moral obligation”, which is incompatible with the clearly political character of the autonomy of art. Whereas art continues to be defined by the concept of autonomy, the “political” turn in art,[2] suggests that we are moving into a more social conception of art. Socially-engaged practices nevertheless take place within a field circumscribed by the autonomy of art. Current debates about political art or aesthetic politics do not take the politics of art into account. How can artists address social politics when the politics of the art field remain opaque? Taking professional, aesthetic, institutional, social and political factors into account, this thesis provides a philosophical and practical investigation of the possibilities for critical autonomy in art practice.

It is increasingly untenable for artists to produce art in apparent ignorance of the art institution’s constraining grip. Every attempt to address this problem takes the form of rhetorical critique that remains dependent on the context of the institution. Institutional critique has shown the limits of self-reflexivity and self-critique. This paradox is especially pronounced within neo-liberal economies, as art institutions become increasingly possessive of art, its representation and the discourse that surrounds it.

Hopeful artists who appeal for entry at the gate of the art world have an idealised view of what such inclusion actually involves and brings with it: superficial and instrumentalised relationships, degrading negotiations with dealers and curators, resentment from other artists. The main problem however, is that the work of art itself is always secondary to the more important issues at stake in the professional art world: sales, exposure, competition, publicity and networking. This state of affairs redefines the notion of “ambition” for artists, prioritising professional anxiety above the formal, political or aesthetic intentions of the practice. This situation makes artists feel both impotent and confused because the artwork is unable to transcend the institutional context and assert its own conditions of possibility. It is almost impossible to express one’s disagreement or to challenge this state of affairs from within the institution. The institutional context surpasses any effort by the work of art to self-consciously acknowledge or challenge the conventions of the art world effectively without being subsumed once again into the category of “art”.

There is a recent surge to produce art that intervenes in the real space of everyday experience. Dematerialised and ephemeral event-like works of art proliferate in museums, galleries and virtual spaces. Art institutions however convert this concept of “free” space into one more reified commodity. The 2010 open call for proposals titled Nomadic devices loom around the museum for two projects in public spaces of Mataró and Vic in Spain,[3] was conceived as a research project “on the construction of mobile devices as elements of an expanded concept of the Museum or going as far as being an alternative to it” (Idensitat, 2011). The project aimed to reflect on:

…those projects which, circulating in the public space, challenge the conventional notion of the Museum and reformulate instead the functions of the exhibition display as a nomadic platform nurturing direct and self-managed participation, development of social research and dissemination of educational experiences. (Idensitat, 2011)

The organisers draw on Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1941) and Roger Filliou’s Galerie Légitime in his hat (1962), admitting that the notion of “travelling art” has “been the object of a recent co-optation by the conventional Museum”. They emphasise the “invasive phenomenon” and the “proliferation of attempts to expand the perimeter of the traditional Museum with portable structures” in order to reinforce the “expansion of the museum’s narrative models”,[4] and promote these “looming nomadic devices” as an understanding of “the exhibition cell as a space for reception and creation of plural and critical narratives against the hegemonic model” (Idensitat, 2011). The project is conceived as a series of events or “parkings” and hinges on the CX-R, an adapted caravan designed by Argentine architects a77 and Pau Faus in 2009 (Can Xalant, 2011):

Its portability allows the center to expand into the public arena, establish collaborations with its environment, and expand its scope of action and repercussion. (Idensitat, 2011)

The project betrays the influence of Michael Asher’s Installation Münster (Caravan), first exhibited in 1977 at Skulptur Projekte Münster. Asher’s concept has been institutionally appropriated and recalibrated as one more aesthetic practice, an identifiable, reproducible and regularised strategy.


For Seth Siegelaub, a key word in the early days of conceptual art was “de-mystification”:

…we thought that we could demystify the role of the museum, the role of the collector, and the production of the artwork; for example, how the size of a gallery affects the production of art, etc. In that sense, we tried to demystify the hidden structures of the art world. (O’Neill, 2007, p. 10)

Siegelaub claims that one aspect of this ambition was to reveal that public art displays are the outcome of private decision-making with significant effects on the consumption and production of art, because “the ‘consumers’ are also the ‘producers’” (Obrist, 2008, pp. 129-130).

…unofficial agreements are rarely exposed even though they often underwrite official cultural politics […] it is not art’s supposed intrinsic qualities alone that lead to its institutional recognition, but an interplay of promotional, social, and institutional activities (Graw, 2006, pp. 145-146)

It is considered inappropriate to discuss the interests, social relations and private discussions that lie behind the activities of art institutions and they are excluded from the public discussions that art institutions regularly host. Stewart Martin concurs that the relationship of art “to its formation within capitalist societies is routinely methodologically excluded as an extra-philosophical concern, to be left to economics, sociology or history” (Martin, 2007, p. 15).

How does this climate of concealment nourish the ambitions of artists today? Between the extreme reactions of protest, withdrawal and complicity, what are the ambitions for artists working today? How do art institutions limit, encourage, or frame those ambitions? And how do institutions figure within the broader social and economic framework of which they are a part and on which they depend?

Hans Haacke worked as a guard and museum guide at Documenta 2 in 1959. Behind the scenes, he witnessed an enormous operation with all sorts of interests at play. Walter Grasskamp relates how this early experience led Haacke to an understanding of museums as defining contexts: observing the “machinations backstage” Haacke witnessed the “enormous effort required to isolate a work of art from the everyday world and shift it into the context of an art exhibition from which it draws much of its aura” (Grasskamp, 2004, p. 30). Haacke witnessed the “stage management” of art: the intervention of the dealers, the conversations between organisers, collectors and the press, the manipulation of art and artists as commodities; their “celebrity rating among collectors”. He realised that the selection (and exclusion) of artists in prestigious exhibitions is crucial for the “ranking of artists and art movements” because it bears on what is documented in the press and other legitimising discourses which in turn determine the reception of the work (Haacke, 2009). Observing the “machinations backstage” Haacke observed a contrast between the work and the everyday life of the viewers. Inevitably, this led Haacke, who was a student at the time, to “a recognition of the artificiality of art, and what constitutes an artwork [and] sparked doubts about the dynamics of his chosen profession” (Grasskamp, 2004, p. 30). Haacke points out that to ignore this “inevitable aspect of exhibitions would yield a flawed comprehension of the dynamics of the art world” (Haacke, 2009), commonly presented as a space of freedom and non-instrumental values.

There continues to be a crucial need for the de-mystification of art because the concealment, distortion and misrepresentation of the functions and structures of the art institution impede the understanding of the conditions of art production and the producers’ place within them. Only with an understanding of these conditions can artists make crucial, realistic and effective decisions regarding their practice.

The various prescriptive statements hurled into public discussion about the art world point out the “crisis” of art and compulsively provide answers to the question “what is to be done?” These normative speculations are unrealistic because they ignore some of the fundamental principles that motivate individual and collective behaviour in the field, they also disregard the principles along which institutions are constituted and function and they assume that all individuals within the field have a common agenda.

Most current practices are promoted by institutions as “critical” in one way or another. Dissent has become the orthodoxy as artists reproduce critical discourses while they participate in the very structures they denounce:

Recurrent expressions of reflexive speculation about the nature of curating, the artwork and the institution by those who constitute it become ritual observances, not radical contestation […] the self-reflexive preoccupation with the identity and status of artist, curator and institution plays on the symbolic negation of these positions, but paradoxically can only do so only by sustaining them in practice. The dramatisation of the self-reflexive defers endlessly any critical debate on the actual, cultural potential and quality of definable artwork, and the authority and power of curatorial practice over the public space in which that potential is evaluated, justified and given legitimacy. (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 4)

It is necessary to look closely at these practices and their associated discourses, to read their claims and stated ambitions against their achievements, to consider their contexts, the social relationships and their sources of funding, to articulate and “demystify” the apparatus that generates the contemporary art field.

What are the expectations, ideals, ethics, strategies, stated aims, interests, investments and motivations of artists and other players in the field? Close attention to these motivational factors reveals the difference between critical practices and practices that are rooted in rhetorical and performative acts of critique, which betray a professionalized and conservative art world.

The ‘professionalization’ of the art world is an understated euphemism for the ‘businessification’ of the art world, which has been gradually developing since the early 1970s. This process is nothing less than the expansion of the dominant values of capitalism into the domain of art production as art has shifted from a ‘small-scale’, ‘cottage’ handicraft to become an important sector of the cultural industry, alongside pop music, fashion, television, film and their related ‘star’ values. (Siegelaub, 2009)

Art history and international contemporary art

So-called “international contemporary art” is a circumscribed, specialised and self-consuming field of production (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 70), which is predicated on the set of financial and ideological hierarchies established in the western art capitals during the twentieth century. Contemporary art practice emerges from the historical discourses of western art and aesthetics, which have defined the legitimating discursive field, appearing naturalised, current and universal. Nevertheless, the art world has made every effort to shed its origins[5] and take up the mantle of “criticality”, yet still retains what Walter Benjamin called its “aura”.[6]

According to Daniel Buren, contemporary art has inherited nineteenth-century art, “its system, its mechanism and its function”. This is clearly apparent in the acceptance of the “exhibition framework as self-evident” (Buren, 1973, p. 68). But it is also apparent in the enduring concept of the art object, which shares its provenance with the museum artefact. Forcibly displaced from its native context and isolated in a glass case the artefact was rendered useless, it became an object for contemplation, aestheticised and admired for its ‘beauty’.

The contemporary art world is not distributed equilaterally across a global network. Curatorial decisions across the globe can be traced back to western centres of financial and curatorial power (museums, journals, galleries, art fairs). The current climate of cultural production is a profitable and exclusive professional sector, which promotes its entrepreneurial activities on the fetishization of the tradition of western art. Nevertheless, the public relations face of “international contemporary art” purports to represent the entirety of practicing artists. These discourses according to Liam Gillick however “no longer include those [artists] who work hard to evade its reach” (Gillick, 2010).

The anxious desire to define “contemporaneity” has spurred a number of journals, panel discussions and academic courses.[7] The main consensus is that we can no longer generalise about art (Foster, 2009). For Liam Gillick “contemporary art” is the name of a “stylistic epoch”, it has become historicised as “a subject for academic work” (Gillick, 2010). It is clear that “contemporary art” refers to a particular type of practice with dedicated venues and an exclusive market, evident in the particular criteria for inclusion in contemporary art fairs. Contemporary art has until recently generally referred to

…a specific accommodation of a loose set of open-minded economic and political values that are mutable, global, and general—sufficing as an all-encompassing description of “that which is being made now—wherever.” (Gillick, 2010)

Contemporary art institutions and biennials currently appear to constitute a dispersed and truly global field without boundaries. In a 1973 interview with the art critic Michel Claura, Seth Siegelaub claimed that conceptual art was unique because it emerged simultaneously all over the world and it did not have a geographic centre. Prior to conceptual art, art movements emerged from local contexts in Paris, Zurich and New York: “it was impossible to be an important artist unless you lived in the ‘right’ city” (Claura and Siegelaub, 1999/1973, p. 287). Claura however argues that “the ideology that underlies western art seems today to subtend the art world in a much more consistent and simultaneously anterior manner” (Claura and Siegelaub, 1999/1973, p. 287). In fact, the contemporary art scene—as it comes across in museums, biennials and art fairs—is centralised and proliferates around the practices of curators with practically unlimited expertise. In his introduction to Institutional Critique and After (2006), John Welchman maintains that the traditional museum has been transformed into an enormous distribution centre:

During the last decade of biennial mania and super-commuting curators who package and reassemble a core of international artists in concert with a homegrown quotient at a myriad roving locations (Istanbul, Yokohama, Cairo…), the contemporary aspect of the “museum” has been effectively re-calibrated as a global delivery system. (Welchman, 2006, p. 14)

Charles Esche argues that despite the reflexive discourses on the global effects of biennial culture, the contemporary art world continues to be centralised, evidence that the periphery must appeal to the centre for legitimacy, as “key institutions of contemporary culture officially […] sanction the ‘periphery’ in order to subsume it into the canon of innovative visual art” (Esche and Bonami, 2005, p. 105). On the one hand, the difference between centre and periphery is sustained in terms of the unequal balance of power and authority. On the other, the global institutionalisation of art has standardised art production, eradicating the difference between centre and periphery. Although many artists develop their practice in the periphery of the art world,

…their energy is validated and consumed by the centre and therefore the relationship between rim and hub remains in place. This is, of course, how globalisation generally operates – sometimes to the economic benefit of the patronised but rarely in the interests of maintaining their autonomy and sustainability. (Esche and Bonami, 2005, p. 105)

In fact, the contemporary art world thrives in plural localised networks, art schools and galleries provide nodal points for these networks, revealing the local character of art production, but also in many cases its institutionally predetermined character. The influence of “international contemporary art” breaks up the crucial dialogue between artists: rather than investing in local networks, artists address an “international” art audience, an illusory sphere of influence accessible only via institutions. This gives credibility to the “international” scene. In many cases, these plural networks remain disconnected in order to maintain their authority. More decades than miles separate London’s west end Cork Street from Vyner Street in the east. Equally, the diverse profiles of galleries currently on Vyner Street demonstrate that a “curatorial culture of self-reflexivity and critical interrogation can coexist more or less comfortably alongside persistent orthodox forms of presentation” (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 4). JJ Charlesworth argues that this ultimately characterises a profoundly contradictory cultural epoch

…where claims to universal and general value are treated with suspicion, but in which the institutions that previously staked their authority on such outmoded things as elite culture nevertheless continue to operate, but emptied of their previous raison d’être (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 3)

Hence, although institutions continue to operate and make value judgements in a climate of “business as usual”, they do so despite the lack of shared values and criteria through which institutional power is mediated and legitimated (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 3):

This pluralising cohabitation can be the only outcome of a cultural debate that has long ceased to argue over any certain definition of the function of art’s institution. (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 4)

The art world is both locally and discursively produced, even though it is presented as international, global, universal and shared through the media, the journals and the publicity departments of institutions.

The problems currently faced by artists who are resistant to reigning ideologies of profit and consumption have been presaged by artists and writers since the end of the nineteenth century. These concerns have come predominantly from the left, and from writers and artists who are concerned with the subservience of art to the forces of production. By the 1980s, it was clear that the corporate infiltration of every sector of society had accelerated rapidly. Some writers expressed their despair while others rejoiced cynically in the apparent freedom—or the pluralism—that neo-liberalism provided. In his Glossary to Relational Aesthetics (2002), Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that we:

…not without irony, borrow Hegel’s formula whereby ‘art, for us, is a thing of the past’ and turn it into a figure of style: let us remain open to what is happening in the present, which invariably exceeds, a priori, our capacities of understanding. (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 108)

To turn Hegel’s end-of-art thesis into a “figure of style” whilst continuing to practice “art” undisturbed amounts to a rhetorical strategy and cynical opportunism. We “remain open to what is happening” but we participate in, produce and reproduce it at the same time. This is why it is important that our capacity for comprehending this state of affairs is not hindered by strategic obfuscation.


[1] For example, Art Parcours the new “special exhibition project” at Art Basel, with a line-up of “high-caliber pieces, selected by Jens Hoffmann”, a performance spectacle throughout the city designed as a side-show for the market <>.

[2] The political turn is evident in the current engagement with the political relevance of art in exhibition themes, art journals and in art practices described as political art, situational aesthetics, relational aesthetics, socially engaged and collaborative art practices.

[3] Curated by Marti Peran and realized together with Idensitat <>, Can Xalant Centre de Creacio i Pensament Contemporani de Mataro <>, ACVic Centre d’Arts Contemporànies <>.

[4] The Serpentine Gallery temporary pavilions (2000-2010), the Temporary Guggenheim Museum in Tokyo (2001) and the Chanel Contemporary Art Container by Zaha Hadid (2008).

[5] While art schools increasingly replace art history with courses in critical theory, Art History departments are rechristened “Visual Cultures” to shed their western-centred associations while essentially retaining the same discourses steeped in western philosophy and aesthetics.

[6] Frieze Masters is a recent effort to reconnect contemporary and art history in the context of the art market <>.

[7] See Foster, 2009 and Aranda, Kuan Wood and Vidokle, 2009 and 2010.