The narrative of avant-garde art is a series of shifts in a controversy that revolves around whether artists should practice critique by withdrawing into artistic autonomy, or to abandon the autonomy of art and practice political art. Jacques Ranciere locates the conflict between political and non-political art in the clash between the politics internal to its own existence, in other words its autonomy:

Critical art has to negotiate between the tension which pushes art towards ‘life’ as well as that which, conversely, sets aesthetic sensorality apart from other forms of sensory experience. (Ranciere, 2009, p. 46)

Both political art and autonomous art however, are accommodated within the institution of art. But there is a third way to view autonomy, and it involves the politics of art.

According to Donlad Egbert, the enduring dilemma for avant-garde artists emerged from the ideas of utopian writer Comte Henri de Saint-Simon and his conception of the artist’s leading role in society (Egbert, 1967, p. 346). The term avant garde is directly derived from the language of revolutionary politics. It was one of Saint-Simon’s collaborators, Olinde Rodrigues, who coined the term avant-garde in the essay The artist, the scientist and the industrialist written in 1825 (Calinescu, 1987, pp. 101-102). In a dialogue between an artist, an industrialist and a scientist, Rodrigues appeals through the character of the artist:

Let us unite. To achieve our one single goal, a separate task will fall to each of us. We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use, in turn, the lyre, ode or song, story or novel; we inscribe those ideas on marble or canvas, and we popularise them in poetry and in song. We also make use of the stage, and it is there above all that our influence is most electric and triumphant. We aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive. If today our role seems limited or of secondary importance, it is for a simple reason: the Arts at present lack those elements most essential to their success—a common impulse and a general scheme. (Saint-Simon, 1999/1825, p. 190)

Artists were to be judged not only by the immediate ‘usefulness’ or exchange value of their work, but by their contribution to the transformation of social relations.

In the twentieth century, the Situationist International and writers such as Henri Lefebvre and Michel Ragon advocated the fusion of art, life and politics, and radically contested the existence of art as a separate category. Other movements of the twentieth century have taken a playful attitude, often ending up preserving a special position for art (DeRoo, 2006, p. 45).

In the 1960s, minimalist artists broadened the critique of artistic autonomy to consider the spatial conditions of the art object. Although the minimalists rejected the transcendent formalism of Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg, formalism re-entered minimalist art with “the assumption that the places of perception are politically and socially neutral” (Deutsche, 1986, p. 22). The work of Dan Flavin and Donald Judd For example, retains its formal autonomy (Beveridge and Burn, 1975, pp. 131 ff). Minimalism insists on the materiality and specificity of its objects and the work’s relationship to its “expanded field” (Krauss, 1983/1979).

A critique of the institution of art was a constituent part of many conceptual art practices of the late 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1960s, artists in New York began to question the status of art in society. In 1969, an early and politicised form of institutional critique emerged in New York when the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) was founded. This was a loosely structured group of artists and critics who joined in protest against the practices of the art establishment. They campaigned for inclusive exhibition policies and a political stand against the Vietnam War. Conceptual art was still a marginal practice in an art world defined by Clement Greenberg’s modernism and conceptual artists presented themselves as an “internal challenge” to the commodity status of art (Bolt Rasmussen, 2009, p. 43).

Clement Greenberg regarded art as the only sphere in which it was possible to articulate freedom from and resistance to pervasive capitalism. Art was to consolidate its autonomy and refrain from any direct political engagement. Marxist intellectuals of the “Old Left” privileged high culture and autonomous art as the “last defensible enclaves of political activity and dissent” (Frascina, 1999, p. 109). This position was untenable for conceptual artists who were concerned with contemporary aesthetic, social and political issues. Following in the wake of student protests, artists set out to critique the museum for its hegemonic role and its failure to denounce the war in Vietnam (Bolt Rasmussen, 2009, p. 44).

For the emerging generation of artists, social and political crises exacerbated the contradictions between modern art and its reliance on the market for production and distribution. Artists sought to question the connection between art and ideological structures. Happenings, Pop art, earth art, performance art, minimal and conceptual art often developed into demonstrations and politically explicit art. In 1970, and at a time when the relationship between art and politics intensified (Frascina, 1999, p. 112), Hans Haacke exhibited MOMA-Poll in the exhibition Information at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Visitors were asked to vote yes or no to the question:

Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not voting for him in November? (Ault, 2002, p. 93)

David Rockefeller was a trustee of the Museum at the time, and although he did not call for the removal of the work,[1] he did question whether the work in the exhibition had any “artistic content whatsoever”. According to Frascina, the institution’s internal correspondence “positioned the interests, identities, art practices and critiques of the protestors as ‘other’ but in need of ameliorating through the process of public relations” (Frascina, 1999, pp. 112-113).

In April of 1969, the AWC held a public hearing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, which was attended by several hundred artists and art workers. A total of 61 artists and critics spoke against museum policies, including Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Robert Barry, Lucy Lippard, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Michael Snow, Gregory Battcock and Barnett Newman (Art Workers’ Coalition, 1969). Carl Andre and Robert Barry urged the movement to abandon the art world and develop an alternative sphere in which artists would have more control over their own work. But the artists were not willing to go that far, according to Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, “It was one thing to criticize museums with their shows and acquisitions, another to abandon the institution of art”. These artists were concerned with political issues, but they were not willing to abandon the institution on which they depended for their own legitimacy. Thus, the “museum remained the main focus” for their protests (Bolt Rasmussen, 2009, p. 45), and they were concerned to extract better working conditions within it. This did not prevent the ensuing accusations that the AWC was involved in the “politicization of art” (Lippard, 1970, p. 173). As a spokesperson for the movement, Lucy Lippard defended the AWC as a political movement not an artistic one, because it did not take a position on the aesthetic content of the artist’s work:

…the AWC has never offered any opinions on the content or form of art, which we consider the concern of individual artists alone (Lippard, 1970, p. 173)

Although the artists of the AWC wished to take up a position in response to social and political issues, the question was how to do this without compromising their aesthetic and critical autonomy (Bolt Rasmussen, 2009, p. 46). Hans Haacke traces the emergence of institutional critique to this period (Haacke, 2007).

Conceptual artists began to address the art institution from social and political perspectives, exploring “appropriate means of intervention in institutional spaces and discourses” (Deutsche, 1986, p. 22). They interrogated the historical context of the work of art, its conditions of reception and its institutional status. Artists such as Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Martha Rosler, Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, Chris Burden and Lawrence Weiner, were amongst those who began to “address ‘art’ as a broad-based social institution whose interrelated sites included museums, studios, journals and newspapers, art-historical practice within the universities, and the marketplace”. Using a variety of innovative media, these artists made evident the “dynamic and complex impact that social, economic, and physical conditions have on the creation of meaning and value” (Zelevansky, 2006, p. 173).

The diversity of art practices which can be assembled under the banner of institutional critique cannot be identified on the basis of common media or modalities of practice. How does one reconcile Daniel Buren’s stripped posters with Hans Haacke’s political work, exemplified by his museum visitor polls, Lawrence Weiner’s architectural interventions, Michael Asher’s site-specific installations and Robert Smithson’s earthworks?

In Subversive Signs (1986), Hal Foster points out that the diverse practices of these artists[2] nevertheless have in common the fact that their investigations focus on the institutional frame, revealing the ways in which “the production and reception of art are institutionally predetermined, recuperated, used” in their critical texts and site-specific work (Foster, 1986, p. 101). Foster observes that these artists utilise spaces, representations and languages both as targets and as weapons, which amounts to a postmodern shift in the practice of art from production to the manipulation of signs. Foster admits that this shift was not new but he argues that it

…remains strategic if only because even today few are able to accept the status of art as a social sign entangled with other signs in systems productive of value, power and prestige. (Foster, 1986, p. 100)

Conceptual artists thus began to acknowledge and made efforts to reveal and frustrate the institutional structures which frame the display and determine the production if art. In 1973, Lucy Lippard wrote a sobering evaluation of these efforts:

Conceptual art has not, however, as yet broken down the real barriers between the art context and those external disciplines—social, scientific, and academic—from which it draws sustenance. (Lippard, 1973, p. 263)

She expressed her despair that the “ghetto mentality predominant in the narrow and incestuous art world” may never be able to break free from its “resentful reliance on a very small group of dealers, curators, critics, editors, and collectors who are all too frequently and often unknowingly bound by invisible apron strings to the ‘real world’s’ power structure” (Lippard, 1973, p. 264).

It was only after this apparent failure, and not until the early 1980s, that practices of institutional critique were gathered into a coherent movement. The chief advocate was Benjamin Buchloh, who beginning with his essay Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art (1982), established the parameters of the term and the main protagonists, including Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, and Marcel Broodthaers. Writing in 1990, Buchloh identifies in Lawrence Weiner’s Declaration of Intent (1969), “a critique that operates at the level of the aesthetic institution”, which he describes as

…a recognition that materials and procedures, surfaces and textures, locations and placement are not only sculptural or painterly matter to be dealt with in terms of a phenomenology of visual and cognitive experience or in terms of a structural analysis of the sign […] but that they are always already inscribed within the conventions of language and thereby within institutional power and ideological and economic investment. (Buchloh, 1990, pp. 136-137)

Whilst this recognition was latent in the work of American artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry, it was manifesting rapidly in the work of European artists of the same generation, especially in the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke.

In fact an institutional critique became the central focus of all three artists’ assaults on the false neutrality of vision that provides the underlying rationale for those institutions. (Buchloh, 1990, pp. 136-137)

Theoretical discourse burgeoned around institutional critique when a second generation of post-conceptual artists emerged, including Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Sherrie Levine and Fred Wilson. These artists contributed to the retrospective constitution of institutional critique (Fraser, 2007).[3] In the early 1990’s the term institutional critique was reappropriated by a third generation of artists “whose work can be read as a series of different attempts to continue and revise some of the premises of Institutional Critique” (Graw, 2006, p. 138). This third generation of artists includes Fareed Armaly, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Clegg & Guttmann and Tom Burr (Kaiser, 2007).

Although institutional critique may seem to be a dispersed and globalised practice, on closer inspection it turns out to be a local phenomenon, which, beginning in the early 1980s, was rapidly theorised and subsequently became institutionalised. The core artists identified with all three generations of the genre have consistently co-exhibited, while artists and theorists sympathetic with the aims of institutional critique generated a substantial theoretical output. Andrea Fraser is herself a major proponent of institutional critique, she has written extensively on the subject, retrospectively mobilizing the work of conceptual artists as antecedents. Fraser acknowledges the influence of Craig Owens, Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, Yvonne Rainer, Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler with whom she studied at the New York Whitney Independent Studies Program in the 1980s, where the consolidation of institutional critique is said to have taken place.[4] Her fellow students included Mark Dion, Renée Green, Gregg Bordowitz, Joshua Decter and Miwon Kwon (Fraser, 2007 and 2005, p. 101). Through Buchloh, Fraser also met Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum and Sherrie Levine who often worked together on collaborative projects.[5]

According to Philipp Kaiser, what galvanised the “loose grouping of artists” which included Christian Philipp Müller, Fareed Armaly, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Clegg & Guttmann and Tom Burr, was the

…inglorious collapse of the art market […] shortly before the outbreak of the first Gulf War. Almost all those present at their hour of birth agreed that it was because of the recession—then especially palpable in New York—that these hitherto marginalized, critical-theoretical artists were suddenly being accorded public space. (Kaiser, 2007)

This loose grouping of artists “connected along an axis from New York to Cologne” (Lind, 2010, p. 196), would exhibit together regularly in Europe in the 1990s under the name of Kontext Kunst (Context Art).[6] At this point in time, the periodical Texte zur Kunst and the curator Peter Weibel both “had a keen interest in proclaiming the much yearned-for new avant-garde”. In 1990, art critic Isabelle Graw and Stefan Germer launched Texte zur Kunst, which was “devoted exclusively to conceptualist, contextualist, and political art criticism”. By 1993, “there were so many exhibitions of contextual art taking place that there was talk of a paradigm shift” (Kaiser, 2007).[7]

Peter Weibel popularised the term Kontext Kunst as the name of a new international art movement with the exhibition Kontext Kunst: The Art of the 90s held at the Neue Galerie as part of the 1993 Graz Steirischer Herbst. The substantial catalogue served as a “compendium of universal validity, as the group’s manifesto” (Kaiser, 2007). The catalogue features an anthology of 22 substantial essays discussing from diverse perspectives the artistic issues and social and political themes that distinguish “Context Art” from related forms of conceptual and installation art. Indeed, Weibel’s heraldic prose is a parody of Situationist proclamations and a precursor to Nicholas Bourriaud’s championing of the artist as social reformer:

It is no longer purely about critiquing the art system, but about critiquing reality and analyzing and creating social processes. In the ‘90s, non-art contexts are being increasingly drawn into the art discourse. Artists are becoming autonomous agents of social processes, partisans of the real. The interaction between artists and social situations, between art and non-art contexts has led to a new art form, where both are folded together: Context art. The aim of this social construction of art is to take part in the social construction of reality. (Weibel in Gordon Nesbitt, 2011, p. 32)

Weibel promoted Context Art as an exemplary departure from the self-referentiality of institutional critiques and a return to the critical practice of the 1960s and 1970s.[8] By emphasising its site-specificity, Weibel saw it as an expansion of institutional critique to a critique of society and social process in general. Maria Lind describes Context Art as a German version of relational aesthetics, with their common interest in site-specificity, process, interdisciplinarity and research. Though the former were “more historically oriented” (Lind, 2010, p. 196) and “more programmatically political and academic” (Lind, 2004). According to Kaiser, Weibel subsumed diverse practices into an apparently coherent movement by promoting the discourse around Context Art. For Kaiser, this was nothing less than an “ideological co-opting of what was then a new artistic phenomenon […] whose genealogical origins were emphasized by James Meyer much later”[9] in an essay titled The Fate of the Avant-Garde.[10] By the mid-1990s, Stefan Germer pointed out that merging these contextual practices eventually emphasised that they were fragmented right from the start (Germer in Kaiser, 2007).

Critique and its vicissitudes

For theorist Peter Bürger and artist Hans Haacke, the concept of critique depends on an ideal of critical distance. The younger generations of artists practicing institutional critique however, are informed by an awareness that the assumption of critical distance has always been a fiction, and their work proposes “a renegotiated notion of critique based on the admission that ‘critical distance’ is compromised a priori” (Graw, 2006, p. 147). Andrea Fraser in fact goes further to maintain that there is no outside to the institution (Fraser, 2005, pp. 282-283), effectively eliminating this distance.

Has institutional critique been institutionalized? Institutional critique has always been institutionalized. It could only have emerged within and, like all art, can only function within the institution of art. The insistence of institutional critique on the inescapability of institutional determination may, in fact, be what distinguishes it most precisely from other legacies of the historical avant-garde. It may be unique among those legacies in its recognition of the failure of avant-garde movements and the consequences of that failure; that is, not the destruction of the institution of art, but its explosion beyond the traditional boundaries of specifically artistic objects and aesthetic criteria. (Fraser, 2005, p. 104)

Institutional critique reveals the antinomies of artistic autonomy, raising critical questions about the institution of art and the role of the artist within it. However, this is often achieved inadvertently; works of art that stage paradoxical subversions within the institution come across as ambiguous rhetorical strategies, which prompt questions about the work’s critical efficacy, if not confusion about its intentions. As viewers, we are forced into a position of passive complicity, because our only response can be an ironic smirk in acknowledgement of this unmasking. Wlliam Powhida’s unflattering drawings of the art world are an example of this kind of work. His drawing, How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality was commissioned by the Brooklyn Rail for its November 2009 front cover. The title of the work is from a blog of the same name by James Wagner (Wagner, 2009). The work, subtitled Or How to Use a Non-profit Museum to Elevate Your Social Status and Raise Market Values is a caricature denouncing the cronyism involved in the controversial New Museum exhibition of work from the collection of Dakis Joannou, who is also a trustee of the museum. The exhibition was curated by Jeff Koons, close friend of Joannou, who owns the single largest collection of Koons’ work. Wagner complains that “aside from the self-serving aspect, it looks a lot like insider-trading” and Linda Yablonsky writes in the Art Newspaper that this exhibition “raises a potential conflict-of-interest” (Yablonsky, 2009):

New Museum director Lisa Phillips says the debate over such issues is one good reason to pursue the show. “We want to push the conversation forward,” she says, adding that the museum is assuming all costs associated with the Joannou exhibition… (Yablonsky, 2009)

Powhida’s drawing is in an edition of 20 prints. Dakis Joannou, bought one of these for $1,500 (Neyfakh, 2010). Jeffrey Deitch, long-time collaborator of Dakis Joannou and Jeff Koons:

…smiled at Mr. Powhida’s critique. “The irony is that by exposing art celebrity culture, he’s becoming a celebrity himself,” he said of Mr. Powhida. “So hats off to him” (Cave, 2009)

Artist Lisa Beck maintains that the caricature is a tribute rather than a critique:

I don’t think that the power structure has exactly trembled… In fact, I know that some of the figures he makes fun of take delight in being included in his work. It’s like being the subject of a roast at Caesar’s—a tribute, or mark of their importance. (Beck in Neyfakh, 2010)

Powhida responded to this criticism in an article published on the Art 21 blog by explaining that both the museum’s and his own dependence on patronage is the only defence against political censorship:

We share the same paradoxical over-dependence on a limited number of wealthy individuals to maintain our independence from political and ideological interference. Assuming public funding, even from the NEA, can bring unwanted political scrutiny of the moral content of the art. This is a paradox the art world faces in its efforts to make art accessible, while remaining free from the kind of traumatic, political interference caused by the politician Jesse Helms, who famously tried to cut funding from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s. (Powhida, 2010)

Raising the spectres of censorship, “governmental regulation and political interference” and reiterating a number of clichés about art and the art world, Powhida paints a black and white picture featuring the heroic artist as social critic and representative of minorities:

Artists are an educated class of cultural producers who routinely challenge “moral authority” and share a tolerance for minority perspectives. That this vision is supported by a wealthy elite is also paradoxical, but there aren’t many alternatives at this point in our late-capitalist democracy. (Powhida, 2010)

Isabelle Graw is sceptical of the support that institutions extend towards artists’ critique, because it can “become a reified practice that feeds capitalism’s all-consuming appetite” (Graw, 2006, p. 148):

…the more seemingly self-evident critical functions that can be attached to a work of art, the better its promotional value. There are works that facilitate such critical labelling—think only of Santiago Sierra’s current popularity. (Graw, 2006, p. 141)

For the same reasons, Craig Owens maintains that practices which attempted to “subvert this nexus from within, addressing the invisible mechanisms which define art in our society” failed in their ultimate goal to “counteract those forces which work to alienate artists from their production” (Owens, 1992, p. 260) and were absorbed into the culture industry:

…ephemeral and site-specific works had been effectively reinserted into the circuits of commercial distribution and exchange via photography; and artists who attempted to maneuver within institutional precincts seemed ultimately to confirm the (liberal-democratic myth of the) elasticity of those institutions—their ability to tolerate even their own most hostile opposition. (Owens, 1992, p. 260)

For Andrea Fraser institutional critique is defined by a particular methodology, which she describes as a “critically reflexive site-specificity” (Fraser, 2006, p. 305). Institutional critique is thereby distinguished from site-specific practices that deal with “physical, formal, and architectural” sites:

Institutional Critique engages sites above all as social sites, structured sets of relations that are fundamentally social relations […] a site is a social field of relations. (Fraser, 2006, p. 306)

Fraser’s condition of “reflexivity” indicates that, amongst the various relations that define a site, there are both “our relations to that site and the social conditions of those relations” (Fraser, 2006, p. 306). Fraser considers institutional critique to be a “political practice” with “transformative intentions […] aimed, first of all, at forms of domination at work in its immediate field of activity”. She argues that the relations which constitute the artistic field interact with relations in other fields. Institutional critique scrutinises these relations in terms of their problematic “encroachment and instrumentalisation (e.g. corporate sponsorship), but also in terms of homologies of structure and interest (e.g. the corporatization of museums, galleries, and even studios)” (Fraser, 2006, p. 306). Therefore institutional critique is critical in the sense that “it does not aim to affirm, expand, or reinforce a site or our relationship to it, but to problematize and change it”. Fraser maintains that institutional critique transforms

…not only the substantive, visible manifestations of those relations, but their structure, particularly what is hierarchical in that structure and the forms of power and domination, symbolic and material violence, produced by those hierarchies (Fraser, 2006, p. 306).

In fact, institutions are resistant to change. Museums change incrementally to accommodate shifts in art practice, museum attendance, new technologies and new funding conditions, but they do not change in response to artists’ provocations or appeals. Although institutional critique has problematised the museum in academic contexts, it has also effectively affirmed the museum’s authority; it has augmented its power by reinforcing the museum’s claim to “cutting edge” practice, controversy and criticality. This has contributed to the museum’s expansion and thereby entrenched its hierarchical structure.

Nevertheless, for Fraser the only way to accomplish such change is “by intervening in the enactment of that relation”. This condition also addresses the “ambivalence” identified with institutional critique:

…because to intervene in relations in their enactment also always means as you yourself participate in their enactment, however self-consciously (Fraser, 2006, p. 307)

Gerald Rauning denounces this self-consciousness as “self-obsessed self-critique”, he casts doubts on its critical efficacy by pointing out that it “substantializes one’s own involvement in the institution and crowds out the horizon of change” (Raunig, 2009, p. 173). JJ Charlesworth concurs, adding that self-critique within the institution can only have a symbolic function, which in turn is dependent on the institution:

…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. (Charlesworth, 2006, p. 4)

What is the “institution of art”?

There is a sense, when speaking of resistance to the co-optation of art or the subversion of repressive institutions and the commodification of art, that one is fighting an invisible enemy. Who or what are we referring to when we speak of the “institution”?

Institutions are centres of social intensity that provide legitimation, but institutions are also characterised by particular discourses, or ways of thinking and speaking. Institutions are hierarchically ordered, social structures which are resistant to change because they tend towards stability. Institutions are therefore both ideological and conservative. Institutions are social apparatuses, which become especially problematic when they are mistaken for the goal rather than the means.

The “institution of art” acquires several meanings throughout the twentieth century and it is often difficult to extract the one from other. The term can stand for any one or a combination of the following definitions:

(1) The first is the limited topological sense of the institution of art as the site of its presentation, such as the museum or gallery. This notion of the institution is encountered in Daniel Buren’s writing. For Buren “institution” is synonymous with “museum” and the function of the museum is to frame, isolate, define, validate and naturalise works of art (Buren, 1973). Andrea Fraser defines this narrow sense of the museum in terms of “bureaucratic organisations that contain and present and preserve and consecrate artworks” (Fraser, 2007).

However, according to Isabelle Graw, this limited notion of the institution facilitates a “fixation on the art apparatus”, whereas in fact the institution has “lost much of its former authority” (Graw, 2006, p. 146):

Fixation on the art apparatus seems strangely nostalgic today, especially in relation to the new definitional power of the art market, which has taken over from the museum as the chief administrator of value through a network of often invisible global transactions in the primary and secondary markets. (Graw, 2006, p. 146)

(2) Hence, the second definition of the institution includes the broader network of social institutions that accommodate the production, display and reception of art, such as museums, galleries, journals, biennials, foundations, art schools, studios, funding bodies and the art market.

…but we can also think of institution in the much broader sense, […] as a social tradition, a set of customs and practices that are established within a particular culture or society (Fraser, 2007)

(3) Thus, the third and broadest concept of the institution of art refers to the historical and contemporary discourses on art, which enable us to recognise and speak about art. According to Arthur Danto:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld (Danto, 1964, p. 580)

Danto defines the art institution as a value system and the tradition of art in the west as an ideological system. According to Peter Bürger, “works of art are not received as single entities, but within institutional frameworks and conditions that largely determine the function of the works”. Bürger defines the institution of art as the “framing conditions” which regulate the “commerce with works of this kind in a given society or in certain strata or classes of a society” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 12).

The concept ‘art as an institution’ […] refers to 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. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22)

In her article, From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique (2005), Andrea Fraser outlines an expanded concept of the art institution:

From 1969 on, a conception of the “institution of art” begins to emerge that includes not just the museum, nor even only the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, but the entire field of art as a social universe. In the works of artists associated with institutional critique, it came to encompass all the sites in which art is shown—from museums and galleries to corporate offices and collectors’ homes, and even public space when art is installed there. It also includes the sites of the production of art, studio as well as office, and the sites of the production of art discourse: art magazines, catalogues, art columns in the popular press, symposia, and lectures. And it also includes the sites of the production of the producers of art and art discourse: studio-art, art-history and, now, curatorial-studies programs. And finally, as Rosler put it in the title of her seminal 1979 essay, it also includes all the “lookers, buyers, dealers and makers” themselves. (Fraser, 2005, p. 103)

The institution of art is defined broadly by Fraser to include everything, even the public. This definition of the institution, however is too broad and therefore becomes meaningless. It fails to draw any distinctions between art practice, selection, mediation, representation, display, distribution, exchange and professional or public reception. The art institution is not inclusive and we do not all have the same measure of responsibility in it. It is therefore problematic to equate the wider field of art as a social institution—including the public—with institutions and institutional practices themselves. Hence, a more precise definition of the institution is necessary in order to discuss the institution of art without mystifying it.[11]

We can consider the art institution in the terms of another definition by Fraser as a “network of social and economic relations” (Fraser, 2005, p. 103). Fraser locates this conception of the institution in the work of Hans Haacke, especially his installations Condensation Cube, (1963-65), and MOMA-Poll (1970) where:

…the gallery and museum figure less as objects of critique themselves than as containers in which the largely abstract and invisible forces and relations that traverse particular social spaces can be made visible. (Fraser, 2005, p. 103)

The institution of art can be differentiated longitudinally along the different roles played out in the institution (artist, museum curator, dealer, critic and audience) and latitudinally, across the various networks and types of institutions, large and small, traditional and contemporary. The relative importance of a museum or gallery depends on its role within the field. For example, new galleries do not have the same influence as established galleries. Established galleries have demonstrated their credibility on the market and accrued a substantial amount of cultural capital over the years from their collaborations with artists, curators, museums, critics and other galleries. Artists who have established their value on the art market will effectively increase the cultural capital of a new gallery by exhibiting there. In fact, an ambitious young gallery will often pay a large amount of money in advance to an established gallery in exchange for the solo exhibition of an established artist. In this way, galleries effectively function as pimps. This is what Fraser demonstrates with her video Untitled (2003). For this video, Friedrich Petzel Gallery arranged a sexual encounter between Fraser and an unnamed collector. If it was somewhat embarrassing to watch Fraser and the collector have awkward sex on a hotel bed, it was interesting to observe the puzzlement of the visitors who regarded this uneventful and bland 60 minute video on a small monitor in the middle of the exhibition Pop Life, Art in a Material World at Tate Modern (2009). Using a conventional single-shot still bird’s eye-view of the hotel room without audio, the video allegorises the relationship between artist, dealer and collector. Fraser describes her intentions in an interview with Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey of Praxis:

…the question I’m interested in posing is whether art is prostitution—in a metaphorical sense, of course (Bajo and Carey, 2004)

However, instead of elucidating this relationship, the work is a further mystification of the terms of its own production: a limited edition with stringent conditions attached to its sale, the first of which is sold to the collector for an undisclosed sum (Tate Modern et al., 2009). The contractual agreement is an important element of this work because the “conditions of production of “Untitled,” the relations of exchange, are obviously central to it” (Bajo and Carey, 2004). Far from demystifying the exchange between artist and collector via the dealer, the video functions as a vulgar figure of speech, an ironic trope or flippant vignette, which obfuscates its admission of complicity.

What remains hidden in Fraser’s Untitled video, is the fact that the dealer is not merely a pimp and galleries are not just commercial spaces. Together with other players in the “network of social and economic relations” that constitute the field of art, galleries perform the vital function of legitimising artworks and artists. Pierre Bourdieu describes the ritual of institutional legitimation fittingly as a form of “consecration” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38). Degree specific consecration is the artistic prestige, or the degree of recognition “accorded by those who recognize no other criterion of legitimacy than recognition by those whom they recognize” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38). There are degrees of cultural consecrations as well as varieties, one can consecrate an art object, an artist, a gallery or an entire movement.[12]

Consecration is a ritual of initiation and it can only be performed by individuals or institutions that are themselves consecrated and therefore authorised to bestow this recognition upon newcomers. Bourdieu argues that reputations in the art world are made, not by individuals or institutions, no matter how influential they are, but by the entire field of production (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 78). Consecration is a performative ritual, founded on a system of belief sustained by the entire field. Bourdieu notes that the consecrated artist or writer is in turn authorised “to win assent when he or she consecrates an author or a work—with a preface, a favourable review, a prize, etc.” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42). This ritual also maintains cohesion in the field as a whole where the stakes include the struggle for the authority to grant this legitimisation:

…the field of cultural production is the site of struggles in which what is at stake is the power to impose the dominant definition of the writer and therefore to delimit the population of those entitled to take part in the struggle to define the writer. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42)

In other words, at stake within these struggles is “the monopoly of the power to consecrate producers or products” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 42). In fact, Bourdieu argues that it is the “incessant, innumerable struggles to establish the value of this or that particular work” that generate the belief that underlies the value of works of art in general, which in turn provide the basis of the value of each particular work (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 79).

It follows therefore that Fraser’s video Untitled, is merely chipping at the tip of the iceberg because a work of art is a commodity as well as a symbolic object, and as such it operates in two relatively independent economies:

…these struggles never clearly set the ‘commercial’ against the ‘non-commercial’, ‘disinterestedness’ against ‘cynicism’, they almost always involve recognition of the ultimate values of ‘disinterestedness’ through the denunciation of the mercenary compromises or calculating manoeuvres of the adversary, so that disavowal of the ‘economy’ is placed at the very heart of the field, as the principle governing its functioning and transformation. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 79)

This disavowal of the economy in the art world is institutionalised in the figure of the dealer, who mediates between money and the artist. The artist should never be seen to accept money directly. In fact this is the most enshrined, albeit tacit rule in the relationship between artists and galleries. As Bourdieu points out, dealers form a “protective screen” between artists and the market, but they also link artists to the market (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 79). The dealer however does not merely represent the commercial exchange of art, the dealer is authorised to:

…proclaim the value of the author he defends […] and above all ‘invests his prestige’ in the author’s cause, acting as a ‘symbolic banker’ who offers as security all the symbolic capital he has accumulated. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 77)

It is the dealer’s investment that introduces the artist into the “cycle of consecration” by demonstrating his “disinterested, unreasoning passion for a work of art” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 77). Bourdieu describes the practices of art businesses as “practical negations, [which] can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing”, because in the art world, to succumb to commercial ambitions is to “sell-out”. Bourdieu observes that art dealers are reduced either to disinterestedness or self-interest, which conceals their essential duality or duplicity. The art market can only function “by virtue of a constant, collective repression of narrowly ‘economic’ interest” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 74). The pursuit of economic profit is therefore carried out in conjunction with the accumulation of symbolic capital, both of which depend on the disavowal of the commercial interests and profits derived from disinterestedness. Hence, the pursuit of prestige or recognition is the only economically viable and legitimate form of credit in the art world:

For the author, the critic, the art dealer, the publisher or the theatre manager, the only legitimate accumulation consists in making a name for oneself (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 75)

Fraser casts Friedrich Petzel Gallery in the role of the pimp, herself in the role of the prostitute and the collector is the customer, who pays to satisfy his desire for possession. However, a surplus of value is also generated in this transaction, in the form of cultural capital.

In The Field of Cultural Production (1993), Pierre Bourdieu distinguishes between two principles at work within the field of art. On the one hand, the specificity of art is defined by the “autonomous principle” whereby art “fulfils its own logic as a field” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 39). Bourdieu describes the autonomy of artistic production as the equivalent of a guild for professional artists

…who are less inclined to recognize rules other than the specifically intellectual or artistic traditions handed down by their predecessors, which serve as a point of departure or rupture. They are also increasingly in a position to liberate their products from all external constraints, whether the moral censure and aesthetic programmes of a proselytizing church or the academic controls and directives of political power, inclined to regard art as an instrument of propaganda. (Bourdieu, 1993, pp. 112-113)

The dominant “heteronomous principle of hierarchization” in the field of art is official success and would dominate the field unchallenged if the field lost its autonomy and became subject to ordinary laws prevailing in the economic and political field (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38). In these terms, it becomes apparent that the field of power—which dominates both art and society—functions like a barrier between the field of art and the forces of society.

The institution of art is thus divided within itself, but this dividing line is drawn in the sand. Institutions or individuals with the authority to legitimise or “consecrate” art do not always explicitly censor or exclude artists, instead they set up the conditions whereby artists self-censor themselves willingly. As Susan Buck-Morss points out, critique is not unwelcome in the hallowed halls of museums, as long as it is carried out as art (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 68). The museum thus brackets art’s critical potential while it lays claim to the critical appeal of the work of art.

Bourdieu argues that a work of art cannot be recognised and valued as such until it is “socially instituted as a work of art” by figures who are themselves consecrated with institutional competence and authority. But even then, the qualities of a particular artist or work of art do not suffice to render this judgement (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 229). Because “the ‘subject’ of the production of the art-work—of its value but also of its meaning—is […] the entire set of agents engaged in the field”, this includes artists, critics, dealers, collectors and curators:

…in short, all who have ties with art, who live for art and, to varying degrees, from it, and who confront each other in struggles where the imposition of not only a world view but also a vision of the artworld is at stake, and who, through these struggles, participate in the production of the value of the artist and of art. (Bourdieu 1993, p. 261)

The production of the value (and meaning) of the singular work of art is therefore concomitant with the production of the value of art. The art institution is thus more than just a “network of social and economic relations”, the art institution is a self-governing ideological value system. It has the potential to be constantly renewed by the diverse practices that it represents. This potential however, is stunted and redirected by the most heteronomous and most powerful agents, who set the standards of inclusion and achievement within the field. The institution of art can thus be defined narrowly to include only those institutions or individuals that have the authority to legitimise art as such.

Fraser argues that once we have conceived the institution of art as a social field “the question of what is inside and what is outside becomes much more complex”, adding that institutional critique consistently engages with those boundaries (Fraser, 2005, p. 103). On the one hand, this is true as far as the audience also internalises the projections of the institution of art, the audience however does not share the responsibility of artists, curators and institutions in constructing and promoting practices and representations of art. Fraser admits that:

There is, of course, an “outside” of the institution, but it has no fixed, substantive characteristics. It is only what, at any given moment, does not exist as an object of artistic discourses and practices. (Fraser, 2005, pp. 281-282)

There is therefore an outside to the art institution, it is whatever is ignored, marginalised, excluded and appropriated. The interminable questions that revolve around the question of the distinction between art and non-art—which would also provide the definition of art—demonstrate that there is an outside to the institution. Like ideology, the institution is not apparent when one is on the inside, because one cannot see that one is inside. The art world is not inclusive of all artists and practices. There is an outside position to speak from because the inside is not inclusive. Isabelle Graw argues emphatically that “it is simply not the case that ‘there is no outside’ or that even the most outrageous proposition will inevitably be absorbed by institutions”. She argues that in order to construct an institution

…a constitutive outside is not only needed, but inevitable. Some things will always be left out, often deliberately: structurally speaking, every centre produces its periphery. (Graw, 2006, p. 143)

The public is on the outside too, because “consecration” is performed by experts and because this process is intentionally mystified. In reality, the public has the power to confer the status of art onto an object by popular consensus. The popularity of Tate Modern, however is not a demonstration of this sort of consensus, instead one would have to trace its popularity to cultural and economic policies and the media.

The centralised power structure of the art institution alienates both artists and the public, evidence the critical attitude of the public as well as that of artists, critics and even collectors.[13] At the same time, excluded artists uphold the fetishised value of the art world even more ardently than those consecrated by it, precisely because they are on the outside, looking in and seeking inclusion.

Today we speak of the “expanded museum”; beginning with the independent curator, the museum gradually became externalised, increasingly reaching out to public spaces and social networks. As Fraser points out, art practices which aspire to “escape” the institution, actually take it with them:

It is artists—as much as museums or the market—who, in their very efforts to escape the institution of art, have driven its expansion. With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or reintegrate it into everyday life, to reach “everyday” people and work in the “real” world, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it. (Fraser, 2005, p. 104)

The art institution as a discursive formation

The white wall’s apparent neutrality is an illusion. It stands for a community with common ideas and assumptions. (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 42)

The ubiquitous question “Yes, but it is art?” is usually a provocation for a debate about what art is, in apparent ignorance of the fact that if works of art serve any purpose at all, it is to keep posing this question anew. Andrea Fraser argues that art is defined as such “when it exists for discourses and practices that recognize it as art, value and evaluate it as art, and consume it as art” (Fraser, 2005, p. 103). The purpose of the art institution is to define art and it does so via an ensemble of discursive functions. These usually include exhibitions and art reviews, catalogues and monographs, panel discussions and conferences, art school critiques, textbooks and journals. Our concept of art is therefore essentially a social convention, which Fraser identifies as the institution of art:

The institution of art is not something external to any work of art but the irreducible condition of its existence as art. No matter how public in placement, immaterial, transitory, relational, everyday, or even invisible, what is announced and perceived as art is always already institutionalized, simply because it exists within the perception of participants in the field of art as art, a perception not necessarily aesthetic but fundamentally social in its determination. (Fraser, 2005, p. 103)

It follows that, if the institution of art is socially determined, then 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, whether as artists, critics, curators, art historians, dealers, collectors, or museum visitors. (Fraser, 2005, p. 103)

The significance of this, as Fraser argues, is that “above all” the institution of art “exists in the interests, aspirations, and criteria of value that orient our actions and define our sense of worth” (Fraser, 2005, p. 103). The institution of art is therefore entwined with our own investments and ambitions, and maybe more importantly, it is entwined with our identities and values. According to Pierre Bourdieu, art is an institution in the sense that the “work of art is an object which exists as such only by virtue of the (collective) belief which knows and acknowledges it as a work of art” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 35). Hence, the notion of artists “becoming” institutionalised is a fallacy. Prevailing artistic, aesthetic, art-historical or critical discourses do not merely enable us to recognise art; they constrain what we recognise as art in two ways. In the first case, the production of discourse is a condition for the production of art, by insinuating, contextualising, interpreting or legitimising it (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 35). And secondly, the institution limits and controls the production of discourse by administering its possibilities and over who are authorised to produce this discourse:

All critics declare not only their judgement of the work but also their claim to the right to talk about it and judge it. In short, they take part in a struggle for the monopoly of legitimate discourse about the work of art, and consequently in the production of the value of the work of art. (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 36)

The role of the critic, the curator or the scholar who translates practice into discourse, is objectively more influential in the production of discourse on art than the work of the artist because discourse has material effects. Michel Foucault argues that discourses are not merely “signifying elements referring to contents or representations”, discourses are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (Foucault, 1989, p. 54). Foucault is concerned with the material effects of discursive structures that maintain dominance and status quo in any field:

…in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality. (Foucault, 1986/1971, p. 149)

The materiality that Foucault refers to amounts to the actual effects of discourse. Amongst these effects is the power to influence the art and institutions of the future. Foucault argues that although we can discern in the plurality of discourses and the “infinite resources” available for their production, this potential is available at a price, because disciplines and discourse are essentially “principles of constraint” (Foucault, 1986/1971, p. 155):

They become embodied forms of knowing and they are just as systematic and structured and every bit as constraining as the more obvious structures of control, perhaps more so, because they are taken for granted and embodied. (Foucault, 1986/1971, p. 155)

In other words, individuals speak through pre-existing narratives but they are just as much “spoken by” these naturalised and embodied discourses. The curator, according to Paul O’Neill is “an important agent within the global cultural industry” (O’Neill, 2007, p. 16). In fact, for Boris Groys the curator embodies institutional authority: “a curator does not need to be part of any fixed institution: he or she is already an institution by definition” (Groys, 2009). The rising power of the curator, according to O’Neill has less to do with the power structures of the art world and more to do with “inherited cultural significance (and capital)”. He argues that in order to be considered an element of the institutional superstructure, “curating had to be articulated as part of art discourse” (O’Neill, 2007, p. 19). O’Neill characterises the discursive as an “ambivalent way of saying something vis-à-vis doing” (O’Neill, 2007, p. 20) and argues that curating produces the required level of esteem for the entry of art works into the superstructure:

Practice alone does not produce and support such esteem, rather distinct moments of practice translate into a hierarchical ‘common discourse’ of curating as it is understood through its discursive formations. While internationalism is now at the core of practice with the biennial industry, its accompanying curatorial discourse functions to maintain the superstructure of the art world on a much wider scale than ever before. (O’Neill, 2007, pp. 20-21)

Benjamin Buchloh foregrounds the role of the curator as one essentially of converting discourse into practice, contextualising and decontextualising practices and artists successively. Buchloh regards this “procedure of abstraction and centralisation” as an “inescapable consequence”—but it is also an inescapable condition—of the work’s entry into the “superstructure apparatus” (Buchloh in O’Neill, 2007, p. 19).[14] Therefore, a circular relationship transpires in the field of culture, where practice is translated into discourse, which in turn produces “more equivalent practice, which enables the maintenance of the existing superstructure” (O’Neill, 2007, p. 19).

[Exhibitions are] contemporary forms of rhetoric, complex expressions of persuasion, whose strategies aim to produce a prescribed set of values and social relations for their audiences. As such exhibitions are subjective political tools, as well as being modern ritual settings (O’Neill, 2007, p. 16)

In his classic series of essays Inside the White Cube (1976), Brian O’Doherty argues that, at its most serious, “the artist/audience relation can be seen as the testing of the social order by radical propositions” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 41). However, and for the most part, discourse serves to reinforce and sustain the status quo, by facilitating the “successful absorption of these propositions by the support system—galleries, museums, collectors, even magazines and house critics—evolved to barter success for ideological anaesthesia” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 41).

Aesthetic judgement is the belief system that sustains the institutional selection, dissemination and promotion of artists, practices and discourses. The professional field of art is legitimised by this subjective and unverifiable but naturalised concept of value, which is disseminated throughout the art world and periodically updates the legitimate values and aspirations of art. In his essay When Form Has Become Attitude – And Beyond (2005/1994), Thierry de Duve traces the historical paradigm shifts in the modalities of art-making in terms of their institutional definition, particularly in art education. The academic tradition of the eighteenth century emphasised “talent” within the paradigm of mimesis. Art in this period is classified in terms of what de Duve calls “metier”, defined as the canon or tradition of art with its specialised rules and skills (De Duve, 2005/1994, pp. 19, 22, 23). Modernism and the avant-garde initiated a shift towards the emphasis of creativity: art within modernism is classified according to “medium” and thus the paradigm became invention (De Duve, 2005/1994, pp. 20, 22, 23). Both of these models are obsolete (De Duve, 2005/1994, p. 22)[15] and have been replaced with the latest shift, which occurred in the 1970s:

…the most progressive art and art teaching of the Seventies thought that art had to be willed, whether it aligned itself with some political programme bathed in revolutionary rhetorics, or whether it saw itself as the relentless critique of the dominant ideology. […] Thus another concept took the place of creativity, that of “attitude”. A concept that is a blank, actually: a sort of zero degree of psychology, a neutral point amidst ideological choices, a volition without content. (De Duve, 2005/1994, p. 26)

De Duve argues that in the 1970s, the two former models “the academic model, talent-metier-imitation, and […] the Bauhaus model, creativity-medium-invention” were replaced by “a new triad of notions: attitude-practice-deconstruction” (De Duve, 2005/1994, p. 26).

Contemporary practice is converted into historical (arte)fact through discourse, which is traditionally the purpose of the museum and the discipline of art history. However, the circulation of art depends on the circulation of discourse. In the contemporary orgy of international exhibitions and events, an overview of current practice is impossible. Discourse thus becomes indispensable in the popularisation of artists, art works and trends in journals, publications, conferences, panel discussions and art schools.

According to Fraser, the institutional critique of the museum as an apparatus is equally a critique of artistic practice (Fraser, 2005, p. 102), the critique of the institution of art is thus not aimed just at museums, but constitutes an attack on the internalisation of the orthodoxies within the community of the art world as a discursive institution (Fraser, 2005, p. 103). Fraser suggests that the internalisation of these orthodoxies is problematic, because they predetermine our perceptions and actions. And because they are implicit, these ideologies are very difficult to oppose and reinvent. A critique of these orthodoxies however would require us, as artists, to define “our sense of worth” (Fraser, 2005, p. 103) for ourselves, and to shed the orthodoxies that determine the art world and its functions to replace them with discourses that represent our own values. But these orthodoxies are impossible to extract from the way we think about art and our identities as arts.

If institutional critique is a critique of the internalisation of ideology, then instead of problematising institutional sites such as the museum or art fair, while subscribing to their value-systems, it might be more appropriate to either problematise institutions that are formative in our shared discourses on art, such art education, or to redefine their discourses affirmatively.

Critique within the institution

In his 1966 essay Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences, Jacques Derrida maintains that the epistemological presumptions of western metaphysics constitute the “structure” of philosophical discourse and infect ordinary language. Derrida questions these discourses by revealing their reliance on an origin or centre:

The function of this centre was not only to orient, balance, and organise the structure—one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganised structure—but above all to make sure that the organising principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure. By orienting and organising the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form. (Derrida, 2005/1966, p. 352)

The centre permits the play of elements because it provides them with a context. Nevertheless, and for the same reason, “the centre also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible” (Derrida, 2005/1966, p. 352). This is essentially the problem of any discursive formation, i.e. an institution. Daniel Buren describes the art institution as “the centre in which the action takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work” (Buren, 1973, p. 68). So for example,[16] the question: “What is art?” predetermines any possible answers by the assumption that “art—the word, the concept, the thing—has a unity and, what is more, an originary meaning, an etymon, a truth” (Derrida, 1987/1974, p. 20). Derrida points out that, in seeking for this meaning of art, one would be seeking for a singular meaning which would “inform from the inside, like a content, while distinguishing itself from the forms which it informs” (Derrida, 1987/1974, pp. 21-22). Derrida’s notion of centred structure reveals the orienting effect of institutions as centralised structures, whether ideologically (on a universal level), or methodologically (on a local level):

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play. (Derrida, 2005/1966, p. 352)

Derrida’s theory of the centred structure which limits play describes the central organisation of discursive or institutional systems which ultimately strive for stability, thus the limit on “play” is also the limit on the amount of change these systems are willing to undergo. Derrida insists that even “destructive” discourses find their footing within the parameters defined by the centre of discourse because the idea itself of “discourse” is dependent on these inherited structures:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. (Derrida, 2005/1966, p. 354)

This is precisely the contradiction of institutional critique: the problem of the prevailing ideology of the institutions within which contemporary art is produced and circulated. Artists practicing a critique of the art institution are caught within the terms they are trying to unsettle. On the one hand, they seek recognition and rewards from the institution, on the other, they seek to challenge the very legitimating structures of the institution.

According to Derrida: “The quality and fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relation to […] inherited concepts is thought” (Derrida, 2005/1966, p. 356). In other words, in our own practice, we cannot circumvent or do away with the persistence of metaphysics—which is what the avant-garde movements attempted—we can only knowlingly insert ourselves into this intertextual mesh. This argument supports Fraser’s thesis of institutional critique as a “critically reflexive site-specificity” (Fraser, 2006, p. 305), and suggests that as artists we must accept our complicity within ideology.

Conceptual art and deconstruction appear to follow a parallel trajectory. Benjamin Buchloh emphasises the shift into the space of language-based discourse predisposed by the linguistic propositions of conceptual art:

…the proposal inherent in Conceptual Art was to replace the object of spatial and perceptual experience by linguistic definition alone (the work as analytic proposition), it thus constituted the most consequential assault on the status of that object: its visuality, its commodity status, and its form of distribution. (Buchloh, 1990, p. 107)

Derrida maintains that the decline of the concept of the transcendental signified, which was codetermined by the decline of grand narratives, has brought about an intensification of discourse; extending the play of signification infinitely:

This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse—provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification infinitely. (Derrida, 2005/1966, pp. 353-354)

This may provide a starting point from which we can begin articulating new ways of thinking and acting but it is an unsatisfactory condition in itself and it is not sustainable. In the following quotations, it is apparent that Derrida and Buren are essentially referring to a similar strategy of cynical complicity or accommodation within oppressive and alienating structures:

The work in progress has the ambition, not of fitting in more or less adequately with the game, nor even of contradicting it, but of abolishing its rules by playing with them, and playing another game, on another or the same ground, as a dissident. (Buren, 1977, p. 73)

It is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself. A problem of economy and strategy. (Derrida, 2005/1966, pp. 356-357)

Burden and Derrida both suggest that we have little choice but to cut our own dresses from the same old cloth, the difference is just a matter of style. In her historical and critical account of the Situationist International The Most Radical Gesture (1992), Sadie Plant raises a pertinent question about the difference (or connection) between forms of critique and ways of life. Plant argues that one of the paradoxes of the Situationist project was that contrary to their categorical condemnation of the spectacle as an alienating force, their activism suggested that “pockets of post-revolutionary consciousness can somehow arise in the pre-revolutionary present” (Plant, 1992, p. 89-90).

When Vaneigem declared: ‘I want to exchange nothing—not for a thing, not for the past, not for the future. I want to live intensely, for myself, grasping every pleasure’,[17] he was not merely giving an account of how life should be, but declaring his intention to take it in the here and now as a means of achieving a world in which such supreme self-satisfaction would be realised. (Plant, 1992, p. 90)

According to Plant, the critique of the spectacle “as a dehumanising force is in danger of falling into self-contradiction if it admits that it is possible to play and enjoy some autonomy and control over one’s own life within capitalist society” (Plant, 1992, p. 90). Plant asks whether the Situationist tactics (for example, the sabotage of labour on the one hand and alternative worker’s organisations on the other) were:

…means of coping with capitalism or destroying it? Were the situationists more concerned with finding ways for real life to survive within the spectacle, or with the contestation of the spectacle itself? (Plant, 1992, p. 90)

The question is relevant to the ultimate aspiration of institutional critique and to critical art in general. What is the end of critique? If Buren’s critique is a form of play, the Situationist project aimed at nothing less than revolution. Plant argues that the Situationists recognised the capacity of capitalism to absorb critique but insisted that all activity should uncompromisingly precipitate revolutionary change. The Situationists condemned forms of activism towards a habitable present as ineffectual reformism that is susceptible to recuperation (Plant, 1992, p. 91). Plant quotes a scathing critique of the Situationists by Jean Barrot from his book What is Situationism (1987). According to Plant, Barrot expresses his reservations concerning the contradictions of Situationist critique as a form of consciousness within and against capitalism, which could only lead to repression or reformism (Plant, 1992, p. 90):

Either one huddles in the crevices of bourgeois society, or one ceaselessly opposes it to a different life which is impotent because only the revolution can make it a reality. (Barrot in Plant, 1992, p. 90)

Plant concludes that although there are obvious benefits in making improvements to a flawed society one would prefer to abolish, nevertheless “people’s attempts to live in the here and now must also undermine the system which condemns them to survival”. Plant, cites the Situationists’ role in the May events of 1968 as an example (Plant, 1992, p. 94). However, the idea of revolution as a radical schism in society, from a pre-revolutionary condition of unfreedom and inequality to a post-revolutionary society of freedom and equity has historically proved elusive. Society is a web of relationships, networks of power and conflicting interests which cannot change from one moment to the next without great upheaval and instability. Sedimented structures, conventional practices and power relationships do change incrementally over time. We can contribute to the type of society we want by making changes on the local level in which we operate. If we build small models of the type of society we want, in artist-run spaces, collective projects and local communities we will can make improvements in the present and these will function more effectively to undermine the status quo than any negative critique.

The defence of autonomy

I understand Institutional Critique much more as a defence, this may seem contradictory, but as a defence of the institution of art, in the broad sense, of the field of art, of art as a social field. A defence of the institution of art in society as a site of critique, as a site of dissent and critique and contestation, in society and culture. (Fraser, 2007)

For Andrea Fraser, unlike movements of the historical and neo avant-garde, which challenged art institutions and the autonomy of art (Fraser, 2007), institutional critique developed as a defence of art and art institutions against exploitation, reification, instrumentalisation and commodification. Fraser cites the work of Buren, Asher, Broodthaers and Haacke to support her thesis (Fraser, 2006, p. 307). Excluding Broodthaers, the other three artists, to varying degrees, sit comfortably within institutions of art that provide the centre of meaning and purpose of their work. None of these artists has proposed significant alternatives. As a negative critique of museum practices, their work is inextricably embroiled in a dialectical relationship with these institutions. This is because their identity as artists is also inextricably tied up with the art institution and the claim to autonomy.

According to the idealist concept of the autonomy of art, art is perceived as being “distinct from the social, and the museum is defined as a neutral, nonsocial, apolitical institution”. The work of art thus appears to be entirely different to other forms of social production (Germer, 1988, pp. 64-65). In his article Haacke, Broodthaers, Beuys (1988), Stefan Germer argues that more successfully than any form of censorship, the institutional neutrality of artistic practice constrains and depoliticises the work of artists:

Only in a generalized and unspecific way is “outside reality” accepted into the museum space; the boundary between art and society is thus kept intact (Germer, 1988, p. 65)

The concept of autonomy has been highly contested. Theodor Adorno and Peter Bürger believe in the critical value of autonomy because it releases art from the imperative of use-value in a society where everything is subjected to functional demands. However, the explicit functionalisation of art by museums, corporations and governing bodies evacuates this argument.

The autonomy of art has become indissociable from the institution of art, which is essentially composed of institutions that carry out the work of regulating the production and dissemination of art (art fairs, journals, galleries, museums). In claiming that institutional critique does not want to destroy the art institution but to defend it, Fraser is essentially playing out her investment and belief in the institution. According to Pierre Bourdieu, participation in the field of art is consubstantial with a certain investment in its values; artists have a collective investment in the values, or the illusio of the art world. Illusio is the “belief in the game, interest in the game and its stakes” (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 227). Artists are profoundly invested in the values and meaning of art:

Being interested means ascribing a meaning to what happens in a given social game, accepting that its stakes are important and worthy of being pursued. (Bourdieu, 1992, p. 92)

According to Bourdieu, the “struggles for the monopoly of the definition of the mode of legitimate cultural production” necessitate a sustained reproduction of the illusio (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 227). As Buchloh points out, avant-garde practice mobilises it own resistance within this struggle:

…a continually renewed struggle over the definition of cultural meaning, the discovery and representation of new audiences, and the development of new strategies to counteract and develop resistance against the tendency of the ideological apparatuses of the culture industry to occupy and control all practices and spaces of representation. (Buchloh, 1984, p. 21)

These observations indicate that there is a considerable conflict of interest involved in the practice, display and dissemination of art, which goes beyond what is usually discussed in publications and public debates on art. It also reveals what Graw describes as the “regulatory role of the art institution, its ambition to reward ‘good’ artists” as an integral part of this struggle (Graw, 2006, p. 144).

For Fraser, Haacke’s work exemplifies the practice of institutional critique. She argues that in his critique of the museum, Haacke’s intention is to defend the “autonomy of art institutions from instrumentalisation, from exploitation by […] political and corporate interests” and equally to defend art institutions:

…as potential sites of critique, as sites for another set of values, that aren’t those political and economic and market values that are driving those corporate interests and those interests of trustees and governments, as they use art to polish their image. (Fraser, 2007)

At the same time, however, Haacke’s work continues to provide art institutions with the necessary criticality and controversy that has long been associated with art and which amounts to its cultural capital and “cutting edge”. Fraser additionally defends institutional critique as a liberating practice: “in making that critique”, she argues, “one is also practicing that autonomy, practising that critique. So as to preserve it […] as an element of the field of art” (Fraser, 2007).

In Fraser’s words, institutional critique emerged with the recognition that “all art works, no matter how aesthetically autonomous, can be exploited for economic and symbolic profit—and often not in spite of but because of their autonomy” (Fraser, 2006, pp. 306-307). It therefore seems paradoxical that Fraser would defend the autonomy of the art institution. According to Buchloh, such a defence is misinformed:

Anyone taking the implications of the situational esthetics developed in the late 60’s and 70’s into account as an irreversible change in the cognitive conditions of art production would have to realize that any return to an unconditioned autonomy of art production would be mere pretence, lacking in historical logic and consequence. (Buchloh, 1982, p. 48)

Buchloh’s assertion is predated and influenced by Peter Bürger’s analysis of the paradoxical character of artistic autonomy in Theory of the Avant-Garde (2007), originally published in 1974. Bürger claims that “the contradictoriness of the category ‘autonomy’” is a necessary component of the definition of art in bourgeois society (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 35). Bürger defines “autonomy” as “the functional mode of the social subsystem ‘art’: its (relative) independence in the face of demands that it be socially useful” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 24). Art becomes autonomous when it is released from the requirement to fulfil a social function. The category of the autonomous work of art, which describes the detachment of art from social practice in bourgeois society “carries the taint of ideological distortion” and functions by concealing its origin (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 35):

The relative dissociation of the work of art from the praxis of life in bourgeois society thus becomes transformed into the (erroneous) idea that the work of art is totally independent of society (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 46)

Bürger points out the vicissitudes of the autonomy of art: on the one hand, when art is released from its social function it turns inward, the autonomy status results in the self-criticism of art. On the other, autonomy also means art’s ineffectuality:

…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, p. 26)

Bürger applies the distinction that Karl Marx makes between “system-immanent criticism” which functions within a social institution, as the criticism of specific ideas in the name of others,[18] and “self-criticism”, which “presupposes distance from mutually hostile […] ideas” and a mounts to “a fundamentally more radical criticism”. The self-criticism of art “addresses itself to art as an institution” (Bürger, 2007/1974, pp. 21, 22):

…with the historical avant-garde movements, the social subsystem that is art enters the stage of self-criticism. Dadaism, the most radical movement within the European avant-garde, no longer criticizes schools that precede it, but criticizes art as an institution, and the course its development took in bourgeois society. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 22)

Avant-garde artists did not take issue with museums or particular practices of interpretation, circulation, selection or exclusion within the art world; they took issue with the entire concept of art and its role in bourgeois society:

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)

The concept of autonomy distinguishes art from other social activities and sets it apart as an object of aesthetic contemplation. This is why it does not matter what artists do:

…museums and other institutions of the artworld really do not care what [artists] do. The institutions of cultural power are not threatened by what the artist creates, so long as it is done within the authorised, artworld space. (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 68)

It therefore becomes apparent that art institutions, which control the distribution and validation of art, do not overtly censor the work of artists but act assertively to encourage the production of work that conforms to the institutions’ expectations (Graw, 2006, p. 142). For Susan Buck-Morss the autonomy of art is a neutralisation of critique, “artistic ‘freedom’ exists in proportion to the artists’ irrelevance” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 69):

Today’s art is “free,” because it obeys no laws of judgement, taste, or relevance, submitting only to the decisionism of the artist, who can be scandalous, playful, boring, shocking, or whatever – modes of being that have no social or cognitive effect. (Buck-Morss, 2003, pp. 69-70)

According to Bürger, the avant-garde attack on the autonomy of art has proved to be no more successful. The intention of the avant-garde was the “abolition of autonomous art, by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 54). Avant-garde artists regarded the dissociation of art from life praxis as the defining characteristic of art in bourgeois society, what they proposed therefore was the “sublation of art—sublation in the Hegelian sense of the term: art was not to be simply destroyed, but transferred to the praxis of life where it would be preserved, albeit in changed form” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 49). In the meantime, as Bürger points out, this sublation has ostensibly taken place, but it was a “false sublation”:

…the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 50)

Bürger however is sceptical about the value of the avant-garde project to sublate art. He regards the reintegration art and life as a “profoundly contradictory endeavour” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 50) and suggests that the distance between art and life may provide a uniquely “free space within which alternatives to what exist become conceivable” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 54). For Bürger, the autonomy of art is a precondition of criticality, because only if art is perceived as privileged enclave set apart from “the means-end rationality of daily bourgeois existence”, can it practice a critique of this existence (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 10):

An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize it, along with its distance. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 50)

But for art to provide this space it must function differently. Artists’ experiments with mass production and the increasingly surreal prices of the art market are casting doubts about the value of art even in the minds of a public that is largely uniformed about the function of the art institution in society.

Critique and the instrumentalisation of art

Andrea Fraser and Isabelle Graw find the paradoxical conjunction of the terms institution and critique problematic. Like the word “institution”, the term “critique” has undergone “semantic shifts and practice-oriented reconceptualizations” (Graw, 2006, p. 147). For Fraser the term appears even less specific, “vacillating between a rather timid “exposing”, “reflecting”, or “revealing”, on the one hand, and visions of the revolutionary overthrow of the existing museological order on the other” (Fraser, 2005, p. 280).

Isabelle Graw’s major reservations with the term institutional critique lie in its normative assumption that art has an epistemological function. Most works included within the canon utilise some form of “critique”, “analysis, “investigation” or “research”, while artworks become “interventions” or “propositions” (Graw, 2006, p. 140). Graw argues that when institutional critique is defined as investigative, this implies a functionalisation of art (Graw, 2006, p. 140):

The concept of Institutional Critique as applied to art is based on the assumption that art is able to do something (Graw, 2006, p. 137)

Graw acknowledges that the epistemological functionalisation of art presents a strategic advantage because it breaks with the dominant idealist and restrictive perceptions of art that derives its value exclusively from its intrinsic qualities. She thus emphasises art’s “inscriptive legibility”, in other words “the actual relation of art to social conditions and the attendant possibility of renegotiating them” (Graw, 2006, p. 140). On the other hand, this function becomes subverted when it “serves as a license to reduce complex artistic propositions to a seemingly unambiguous epistemological function or meaning” (Graw, 2006, p. 141). Graw conveys her scepticism regarding the attribution of criticality to works of art, “as if it were almost self-evident”:

…this criticality is usually asserted rather than defined, and assumed rather than made operationally specific, the result is often the neutralization of the very possibilities for a truly critical art practice—critical, that is, in the sense of raising objections and causing problems in a particular situation. (Graw, 2006, p. 139)

Institutional critique has increasingly come under fire for its apparent institutionalisation. The strategies of institutional critique are often merely rhetorical devices which amount to “critique of an institutional nature” (Graw, 2006, p. 141). This is especially true of the self-critical character of institutional critique, which is often esoteric and unintelligible to the uninitiated, comprehensible only to artists, theorists, historians and critics. Due to its sophisticated discourse on art and society, like any specialised form of knowledge, it often marginalises or alienates viewers. But if we grant that art can carry out this critical function successfully, as is apparent in the work of Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers, the question which follows is whether this stated “functionalisation” does not reveal another unstated and more insidious functionalisation or instrumentalisation of art, which critical art endeavours to resist and counteract. In dialogue with Pierre Bourdieu, Hans Haacke states that:

I believe that Senator Jesse Helms taught artists, and other people who care about free expression, an important lesson. He reminded us that art productions are more than merchandise and a means to fame, as we thought in the 1980s. They represent symbolic power, power that can be put to the service of domination or emancipation, and thus has ideological implications with repercussions in our daily lives. (Bourdieu and Haacke, 2005, p. 2)

Since the early 1970s, Hans Haacke’s work has exposed the relationships between art institutions and their corporate partners, at the same time revealing that museums strategically lay claim to cultural autonomy. Haacke’s installation On Social Grease (1975), exhibited at the John Weber Gallery in New York, consists of six plaques engraved with quotations on the corporate involvement in the arts. The work is explicitly critical of the cultural legitimisation of business through art. One of the quotations by David Rockefeller, who was at the time chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and vice-president of the Museum of Modern Art, reads:

From an economic standpoint, such involvement in the arts can mean direct and tangible benefits. It can provide a company with extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation, and an improved corporate image. It can build better customer relations, a readier acceptance of company products, and a superior appraisal of their quality. Promotion of the arts can improve the morale of employees and help attract qualified personnel. (Haacke, 1982, p. 141)[19]

For Haacke, the relationship between museums and their corporate sponsors essentially amounts to an exchange of symbolic capital for financial capital (Bourdieu and Haacke, 2005, p. 17). To understand the impact of institutional practices on the production of art, we must also consider the impact of economic and political conservatism on art institutions. Richard Bolton carries out such an investigation in his essay Enlightened Self-Interest: The Avant-Garde in the ‘80’s (1998). According to Bolton,

…art provides the corporation with a way to speak of the public good, even as the corporation furthers its self-interest. Art is used to normalize the power of the corporate class. To this end, corporations have taken over support of the arts from the government. Museums and arts organizations depend upon corporations for survival. (Bolton, 1998, p. 34)

Outlining the political and cultural shifts that took place between the 80’s and 90’s, Bolton observes that developments in art and politics led to “Fame for critical artists, accompanied by diminished opportunities for change” as corporations expanded their control in the rise of conservatism and unregulated, aggressive capitalism (Bolton, 1998, p. 23). Bolton examines the impact of the art market, corporate patronage, marketing strategies and the media on the function and meaning of contemporary art, revealing the “adaptability of capitalism as it confronts challenge—with a sense of the way that power works through the cultural sphere to control dissent” (Bolton, 1998, p. 23). Bolton’s premise is that “Inevitably, those with power in a society will strive to create a culture that reflects their interests and aims”,[20] and he argues that ruling elites anticipate and circumvent challenges to this power not through repression but by establishing hegemony:

A crucial part of this legitimacy is gained in the cultural sphere, for culture cloaks power with invisibility. Culture provides the ruling class with subtle opportunities to enter the public imagination, with ways to legitimate the agendas of the ruling class by associating them with the “universal” human spirit. (Bolton, 1998, p. 24)

Simon Susen states that the functionalisation of culture is a crucial strategy in late capitalism, where economic domination is increasingly mediated by cultural domination. Culture, he argues, is used both as an instrument and as a source of power. Because it functions as a legitimising force and as a commodity at the same time, culture subtly penetrates every sphere of society more efficiently than totalitarian strategies of coercion (Susen, 2011, pp. 194-195).

Corporations put “culture to work” by using art as a marketing strategy, whilst most patronage is handled by marketing departments which practice “strategic philanthropy” (Bolton, 1998, p. 30). In these circumstances, the autonomy and the values of the individual work of art are either negated entirely or become subsumed and distorted in their subservience to capitalist strategy and ideology. Corporate support for the arts effectively results in “a public realm brought under corporate control” (Bolton, 1998, p. 28). For George Weissman, chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris until his death in 2009, business interest in the arts is self-interest:

Let’s be clear about one thing. Our fundamental interest in the arts is self-interest. There are immediate and pragmatic benefits to be derived as business entities. (Weissman in Bourdieu and Haacke, 2005, p. 8)[21]

In the language of corporations, this is known as “enlightened self-interest” (Bolton, 1998, p. 30). Philip Morris International, “the leading international tobacco company”, which owns Marlboro and six other cigarette brands (Philip Morris International Management SA Website, 2008) has sponsored the arts since 1965, largely to redeem its unpopular image (Bolton, 1998, p. 32). In recent years, corporations have a growing interest in building art collections, primarily of work by emerging artists. Deutsche Bank claims to

…promote young artists who with their creative work give society orientation, shake things up, or redefine. We aim to internationalize the collection even further and to incorporate the developing countries to a greater extent. (Deutsche Bank AG website, 2010)

Noble intentions and grand claims for art, however the boom in the art market demonstrated that so-called “emerging artists” provide a high-return investment. Corporations also claim to make art more accessible, according to Deutsche Bank:

Encountering and engaging with art is also possible outside of established cultural institutions. Making Deutsche Bank Collection more accessible to the interested public is a goal that we have firmly pursued for almost 30 years. […] In 1979, we took a key first step in making our collection more accessible with “Art at the Workplace.” Since then, rotating exhibits from the collection have been on display in many offices and conference rooms, and not just in executive suites. Clients and visitors can admire works in our Bank buildings. (Deutsche Bank AG website, 2010)

These art collections are, strictly speaking, not accessible to the public unless they are business clients with access to particular corporate spaces. Art collections offer corporations “great public relations value”, while they simultaneously “further the institutionalization of art as a corporate activity” (Bolton, 1998, pp. 32-33).

The corporation has used its enormous power to rob the arts of their role as a space of dissent, as a possible site of uncommodified experience. The museum becomes the site of affirmation of the corporation’s project. (Bolton, 1998, pp. 33-34)

The cooptation of artists’ dissent is not possible without the artist’s consent. Hans Haacke’s installation On Social Grease (1975), which is unequivocal in its criticism of corporate involvement in the arts, was originally acquired for the Gilman Paper Company Collection. The plaques mimic the monumental severity of corporate insignia and, as Travis English claims, they “fit more perfectly within the lobby of a multinational corporation’s headquarters than within a gallery or museum” (English, 2007). In the corporate collection, the plaques can function either way; taken at face value, they embody corporate ideology. Read ironically, they promote the company’s transparency and socially responsibility. For Chin-Tao Wu, the Gilman Paper Company has “actively, and radically, redefined the very meaning of the piece” (Wu, 2002, p. 267). On Social Grease was resold at Christie’s in 1987, subject to Siegelaub and Projansky’s notorious Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (1971). The Agreement stipulates, amongst other clauses covering the loan and exhibition of the work, that the artist is due a 15% royalty fee if the work is resold. This has always been viewed by the establishment as “good for artists in principle, but bad for business in fact” (Smith, 1987). At the time, Roberta Smith claimed that

The sale might be seen to affirm once more the official acceptance of Conceptual art and to suggest, as well, that Mr. Haacke’s work can be co-opted and commodified as thoroughly as any other successful artist’s. It might also be seen to imply the reverse: that Mr. Haacke’s work, which takes the exploitation of culture as one of its subjects, knits so well with the thinking behind the contract that it almost becomes part of his own esthetic. Mr. Weber maintains that the desire to own a Haacke work in the first place “tacitly implies agreement with its socio-political posture”. (Smith, 1987)

The most elementary conclusion that one can draw from the histories and legacies of Haacke’s work is that works of art have the potential to become perpetual signifying devices. The “relational” structure of Haacke’s work interacts and mutates in different contexts, literally testing the social order, “always testing, failing through the rituals of success, succeeding through the rituals of failure” (O’Doherty, 1976, p. 41).

Businesses evidently have an interest in the symbolic value of art, which serves to promote and market their political, social and financial agendas. Nevertheless, the work of art is rarely attractive to institutions and businesses in its own right; it is almost exclusively valued according to its accumulated cultural and symbolic capital. The ubiquitous disregard within business and institutional practice for the individual work of art poses a fundamental clash of interests between artist and institution.

The utopian and idealist character of art is associated with its claim to autonomy. For Herbert Marcuse, the autonomy of art amounts to the ineffectuality of art. In his essay The Affirmative Character of Culture (2009) originally published in 1968, Herbert Marcuse describes the contradictory nature of art; while art creates positive models against a reality that it protests, these can only assume a utopian character because they are aestheticised and detached from reality. Hence, while art reveals underlying truths about reality, these are taken as a matter of fact, subsumed within the institution and their critical role is thus either neutralised or serves as a consolation:

What counts as utopia, phantasy, and rebellion in the world of fact is allowed in art. There affirmative culture has displayed the forgotten truths over which ‘realism’ triumphs in daily life. The medium of beauty decontaminates truth and sets it apart from the present. What occurs in art occurs with no obligation. (Marcuse, 2009/1968, p. 84)

Although art in bourgeois society provides “at least an imagined satisfaction of individual needs that are repressed in daily praxis” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 12), this experience cannot be integrated into life. This lack of tangible effects does not signal the functionlessness of art, instead it “characterizes a specific function of art in bourgeois society: the neutralization of critique” (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 13).

…aesthetic experience is the positive side of the process by which the social subsystem ‘art’ defines itself as a distinct sphere. Its negative side is the artist’s loss of any social function. (Bürger, 2007/1974, p. 33)

The negative aspect of aesthetic experience amounts to what is essentially a blind spot concerning the subjugation of art in bourgeois ideology:

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)

The most significant consequence of institutional mediation on art is the overriding ideology of the institution, which impinges on the space of the work, rendering all the work in the institution homogenous.

Art in bourgeois society serves many functions; the most subtle of these functions are ideological and therefore largely unarticulated. The institutionalisation of art as an exclusive field severs art’s connections to the world and conceals the functionalisation of art at the service of political and economic interests. The concept of the autonomy of art originates in Kant’s description of art as an aesthetic activity that is purposive but without purpose. This concept is furthermore consolidated in Adorno’s argument that the critical function of art is its functionlessness. At the same time, art is put to use in biennials to attract tourism and community projects to carry out government policies. Art is instrumentalised in museums on behalf of corporations and functionalised in art fairs and auction houses as a form of investment. In all but reputation, art is a formidable industry trading in all forms of culture.

This contradictoriness or ambivalence of autonomy which Marcuse, Bürger and Benjamin highlight, provides a useful perspective on the development of the dialogical relationship between artist and audience, the complexities of this relationship, the evolution of the goals of artists and the effectiveness and limitations of the strategies they have employed. It also points to the conflict between the perceived ineffectiveness of art and the functionalisation of art: its compensatory role and its recuperation and instrumentalisation by museums and corporations.

Critique of institutional critique

The history and achievements of Institutional Critique have to be considered as successfully canonized at this point (Graw, 2006, p. 143)

In her article From the Critique of Institutions, to the Institution of Critique (2005), Andrea Fraser defends institutional critique against criticisms that it has become ‘institutionalised’.[22] The critical claims of institutional critique have come increasingly under question at a time when artists such as Daniel Buren, “have become art-historical institutions themselves” (Fraser, 2005, p. 100).

Fraser has consistently engaged with representations of the figure of the artist through her work and in her writing, often undertaking to defend institutional critique against the charges of “contradictions and complicities, ambitions and ambivalence” (Fraser, 2005, p. 101). She contends that in “an art world in which MOMA opens its new temporary-exhibition galleries with a corporate collection, and art hedge funds sell shares of single paintings” there is a nostalgia for “a time when artists could still conceivably take up a critical position against or outside the institution” (Fraser, 2005, p. 100). Fraser asks rhetorically:

How, then, can we imagine, much less accomplish, a critique of art institutions when museum and market have grown into an all-encompassing apparatus of cultural reification? (Fraser, 2005, pp. 278-279)

For Fraser, the critique of institutional critique’s institutionalisation and obsolescence is based on a misconception. She argues that the assumption that institutional critique opposes “art” to “institution” and the associated assumption that the institution “incorporates, co-opts, commodifies, and otherwise misappropriates once-radical—and uninstitutionalized—practices” (Fraser, 2005, p. 102), is a fallacy because the site-specific interventions of Asher, Broodthaers, Buren and Haacke are a way of both reflecting on and resisting institutional forms of appropriation. Fraser argues that institutional critique does not affirm the contested site of the institutional apparatus and our relationship to it, but problematises and transforms the structure of this relationship: “particularly what is hierarchical in that structure and the forms of power and domination, symbolic and material violence, produced by those hierarchies” (Fraser, 2006, p. 306). For Fraser the only way to accomplish this transformation is “by intervening in the enactment of that relation” (Fraser, 2006, p. 307). Fraser argues that this condition also addresses the “ambivalence” identified with institutional critique, “because to intervene in relations in their enactment also always means as you yourself participate in their enactment, however self-consciously” (Fraser, 2006, p. 307).

What makes this participation self-conscious is our degree of complicity with the structures under critique. Andrea Fraser’s work Little Frank and his Carp (2006) at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a case in point. The work parodies the market-driven ideology and performative self-promotion of the contemporary museum, but the critique is ambiguous, what were the conditions of the work’s production, did she sneak secretly into the museum? When we find out that the work was in fact commissioned by the museum, the ambiguity is ameliorated but the work is even more difficult to grasp, what were the conditions of the commission? If the Guggenheim felt threatened in any way, would it have commissioned the work in the first place?

The argument that artists can infiltrate the institution and subvert it from within is either naïve or intentionally misleading. Institutionalisation does not happen from one moment to the next, it is a process of internalisation and it is exploitative of subjective values, desires and personal relationships. Although artists practicing institutional critique maintain an ostensibly critical attitude toward the art world in their work, institutional critique reproduces established critical models as well as institutional conventions. Most artists currently practicing institutional critique function without causing friction within the institution, erecting a professional career along institutionally established routes:

Finally and familiarly, this practice runs the risk of reduction in the gallery/museum from an act of subversion to a form of exposition, with the work less an attack on the separation of cultural and social practice than another example of it and the artist less a deconstructive delineator of the institution than its “expert.” (Foster, 1986, p. 103)

Institutional critique takes place within the value system it claims to challenge, working with and upholding the very same values and means that it critiques, the aim of institutional critique therefore is to perpetuate the institution.

Epilogue of institutional critique

How has the art world changed after institutional critique? How have museums coped with the criticism? Institutional critique has generated a great deal of discourse in the form of exhibitions, publications and panel discussions. The title of the book Institutional Critique and After (2006), edited by John C. Welchman, suggests that it has been superseded. The current phase of institutional critique, exemplified by the practice of artists such as Carey Young, is a critique on the entire apparatus of the art world from an insider’s perspective. As an after-thought to institutional critique, a number of artist-run institutions have tried to maintain a relative independence from major institutions without however challenging them in any way. Since the 1990s, institutional critique sits comfortably within art institutions, and artists are explicitly invited by museums to perform this critique. In Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique (2009), the editors Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray state that the canonisation of institutional critique “proceeds on a terrain that is quite orderly, operates by clear rules and borders, and is characterized by a certain amount of depoliticization and self-reference” (Raunig and Ray, 2009, p. xv).

Raunig and Ray demarcate two crucial lines of further inquiry. The first is the “line of art production” which in the current phase of institutional critique is a combination social critique, institutional critique and self-critique as institutions invite artists to contribute to their self-definition, which only reaffirms the institutionalisation of institutional critique (Raunig and Ray, 2009, p. xiii). For Simon Sheikh, in response to the expansion of institutional critique beyond art to other forms of institutionalisation “the institutional framework became somewhat expanded to include the artist’s role (the subject performing the critique) as institutionalized” (Sheikh, 2006). Consequently, the second area of investigation that Raunig and Ray recommend is the “line of art institutions”, which take up critical functions themselves. This development is seen mainly as a defensive manoeuvre against a backdrop of “repressive cultural policies” and “neo-liberal populist cultural policies”. Raunig and Ray recommend further inquiry into “counter-strategies [and] new forms of the organization of critical art institutions” (Raunig and Ray, 2009, p. xiii-xiv).

Simon Sheikh postulates an “expanded notion” of institutional critique. He argues that institutional critique is not a historical movement or genre, but “an analytical tool”:

…a method of spatial and political criticism and articulation that can be applied not only to the artworld, but to disciplinary spaces and institutions in general. (Sheikh, 2006)

Sheikh argues that this “institutionalized critique” is internalised by the museum, and does not merely question the function and role of the institution, it also “becomes a mechanism of control within new modes of governmentality”, providing the model for “critical art institutions” (Sheikh, 2006). Institutional critique, he claims, is currently practiced by institutions with the production of academic discourse and discussion panels (Sheikh, 2008). This has come to be known as “new institutionalism” and it describes the practices of institutions that emerged in the 1990s including the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Depot in Vienna and the Kunstraum Luneburg. Isabelle Graw argues that this new type of institution adopted principles and strategies associated with institutional critique, such as research, documentation, teamwork, transparency and communication, all of which are completely “in accord with neo-liberal values” (Graw, 2006, p. 142):

…artistic competencies usually associated with Institutional Critique (research, teamwork, personal risk-taking, and so on) actually feed, sometimes quite perfectly, into what sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have described as “the new spirit of capitalism. (Graw, 2006, p. 139)

Institutions welcome and accommodate artists’ critique within their diversified functions, in fact artists’ critique provides the means whereby institutions adapt to the conditions of neoliberalism.


[1] John Hightower, director of MoMA from 1970, was fired in 1972 for conceding to the demands of artists and museum staff who became increasingly radicalised after 1968. According to Rockefeller, “John was entitled to voice his opinions, but he had no right to turn the museum into a forum for antiwar activism and sexual liberation” (Rockefeller, 2002, pp.452–453).

[2] Including amongst others, Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine, Dara Birnbaum, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum and Jenny Holzer (Foster, 1986, p. 99).

[3] Fraser acknowledges that none of the artists considered founders of institutional critique have laid claim to the term (Fraser, 2005, p. 101).

[4] Renee Green maintains that the term “institutional critique” was promoted by the Whitney Independent Studies Program (Graw, 2006, p. 138).

[5] Lawler and McCollum collaborated on an installation titled For Presentation and Display: Ideal Settings, 1984. Diane Brown Gallery, New York, whilst Lawler and Levine collaborated on A Picture is No Substitute for Anything, Wedge #2 (1982).

[6] These artists included Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Clegg & Guttmann, Renée Green, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Thomas Locher and Christian Philipp Müller (Lind, 2010, p. 196).

[7] As exhibition commissioner in 1993, Peter Weibel invited the Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub to team up with Andrea Fraser and Christian Philipp Müller, to design a trans-national pavilion as the Austrian contribution to the Venice Biennale. In the same year Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen and Barbara Steiner curated Backstage at the Ham­­­burger Kunstverein and curator Yves Aupetitallot invited artists to engage with the site of Le Corbuisier’s apartment building Unité d’Habitation in Firminy, for his Project Unité.

[8] This nevertheless included established artists such as Fareed Armaly, Tom Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, Meg Cranston, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, Thomas Locher, Dorit Margreiter, Christian Philipp Müller, Hirsch Perlman, Adrian Piper, Mathias Poledna, Stephen Prina, Julia Scher, Rudolf Stingel, Lincoln Tobier and Christopher Williams.

[9] In a move similar to Nicholas Bourriaud’s appropriation of another set of diverse practices in the mid-1990s, Kaiser states that the Kontext Kunst exhibition catalogue was “symptomatic of Weibel’s tendency to claim this new art as ‘his’ discovery, if not ‘his’ invention—something of which Germer was publicly very critical” (Kaiser, 2007). Maria Lind concurs that the term Kontext Kunst was “highly contested by particularly the Cologne-based leftist art scene” (Lind, 2004). Relevant discussions on the work of these artists had been published in the journal Texte zur Kunst, before the Kontext Kunst exhibition, while “a number of those involved felt that Weibel and some of the other curators had hijacked their project” (Lind, 2010, p. 196, note 31). See Germer, 1995.

[10] Meyer, 2000.

[11] Arthur Danto (Danto, 1964) and George Dickie (Dickie, 1974) have contributed to an “institutional theory of art” and the “artworld”, which however useful, remain generalised definitions of the “art institution” that fail to take factors such as the relationship of art to capitalism, the commodity and popular culture into account. John Searle (Searle, 2006) provides a definition of institutions based on the primary institution of language, discussed in chapter three. Pierre Bourdieu has written extensively on the institution of art from a sociological perspective, discussed in chapters one to three of this thesis.

[12] The exhibitions When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969, curated by Harald Szeemann and Information, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, curated by Kynaston McShine were instrumental in establishing conceptual art as a movement.

[13] See Saatchi, 2011.

[14] Buchloh, Benjamin (1989). Since Realism there was… (On the current conditions of factographic art). In L’Exposition Imaginaire: The Art of Exhibiting in the Eighties. (‘s-Gravenhage, SDU uitgeverij: Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst, pp. 96–121.

[15] Though as de Duve points out they are still active in varying degrees (De Duve, 2005, p. 25).

[16] For another example of centred structure see Hollier, 1998, p. 42, on the scholastic subdivision of knowledge into a scheme that can be condensed into a summary. Hollier points out that architecture and the text have a common origin in the notion of summation and the notion of grasping the whole work in one glance.

[17] Vaneigem, 1983, p. 86.

[18] For example, Michael Fried’s criticism of minimalist art in the name of Kantian disinterestedness and the formal autonomy of art.

[19] Rockefeller, David (1966). Culture and Corporation’s Support of the Arts. Speech to the National Industrial Conference Board, 20 September 1966.

[20] Whether this is intentional or not is beside the point, art’s buying public naturally appreciates works of art that mirror its own values. Bourdieu argues more broadly that culture does not abolish economic divisions in society, it substantiates them: “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 7).

[21] Weissman, George (1980). Philip Morris and the Arts. New York: Philip. Morris, Cultural Affairs Department. Reprint of speech delivered at the First Annual Symposium, Mayor’s Commission on the Arts and Business Committee for the Arts. Denver, 5 September 1980.

[22] In his New York Times review of Buren’s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2005, Michael Kimmelman accuses Buren of “preaching white-box clichés to a converted audience of insiders [which] invariably depends on the largesse of institutions like the Guggenheim”. Kimmelman extends his critique to the exclusivity of the art world, or what he calls “special access to special information: privileged ideas circulated within a closed system, the art world’s traditional currency” (Kimmelman, 2005).