17 11 06
Just don't over-politicize! or: Design Instead of Institutional Critique
raised clubs police in helmets run towards a group of demonstrators, who have
withdrawn under the arches around St. Mark's Square. The scene plays in Venice
during the Biennale, specifically – when else could it have been – in 1968.
There is a black and white photo of it in Tony Godfrey's History of Conceptual
Art. There are undoubtedly several complaints that one could make about
Godfrey's book. Perhaps even the plethora of pictures, but certainly its
Eurocentrism and something of a lack of theoretical consistency. Yet one thing
that cannot be applauded enough is the political and social contextualization
that he gives his subject matter. Every chapter of his book begins with a
paragraph on the Vietnam War and the protests against it.
the symposium "Art After Conceptual Art", which took place on 10/11
November 2006 at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, on the other hand, social
movements were (almost) not even mentioned. Not in conjunction with historical
Conceptual Art nor with art afterward. Helmut Draxler was the only one who
referred explicitly and several times to "leftist discourses", but
usually only to distance himself from them. Yet if, like Helmut Draxler, one
takes the value critic Robert Kurz as an example of the leftist disdain for
form questions, this is a fairly easy game. Almost as easy as when Kurz, for
his part, rejects "postmodern thinking" and cites Ulrich Beck (!) as
representing this thinking. (As though one could take Gerhard Schröder as an
example to castigate "socialist politics".) On the other hand, at
least Draxler (unlike Kurz) admitted the danger of making use of a straw-man.
In this respect, the example of Jeff Koons, with which he supported his
argument for design (or rather its boundaries open to conceptual art), was
probably primarily intended to piss on the presumed hegemony of the art that is
regarded as brittle and dry, for which the Generali Foundation stands.
these kinds of demarcation battles are important. They are no less than one of
the structural characteristics of the artistic field. And it is only with their
help that criteria for the subject can even be developed. The argument that not
all demarcations dissolve and that these kinds of characteristics are also
needed for post-conceptual art was brought forth not only by Draxler, but also
by Sabeth Buchmann. In light of the current economicization of culture, she
devoted her attention to the reflections that early Conceptual Art carried out
in terms of the topos of work. Here she presented the thesis that the commodity
and spectacle criticism of the 1960s already held several indications of
neoliberal discourses. Although this was also debated following Luc Boltanski
and Ève Chiapello's book "The New Spirit of Capitalism" and also
widely discussed in Postoperaism, unfortunately this debate was not taken up
again at the symposium. In any case, a dilemmatic question arises here: What is
left, if even the most critical minds of one's own field subsequently turn out
to be agents of the opponent? The answer: design. Starting from the charming
statement that art is "always also working on the image of art"
(Buchmann), the (modernism-critical) form actually appeared as a possible
solution. Or at least as a horizon of art that cannot be co-opted for fear of
its "over-politicization" (Buchmann quoting Rachel Weiss).
don't need to hear combat boots stomping in St. Mark's Square to be able to
imagine a different emphasis for conceptual work. According to Alexander
Alberro, co-editor of the anthology on the conference together with Sabeth
Buchmann, institutional critique, for example, is the essential moment of
"Art After Conceptual Art". And the Biennale participants of 1968
were not the only ones to realize that this applies not only to the role of the
artist and the status of the museum and gallery. That is in the book too. For
example in the essay by Helen Molesworth ("Housework and Artwork")
about feminism in reference to the artists Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, Mierle
Laderman Ukeles and Martha Rosler. Here institutional critique is a critique of
social organizations, of patriarchal attributions, of the separation between
the public and the private sphere. Critiques that would never have been
formulated in this way without the increasingly strong feminist movements in
the street at the same time. Even though their "aesthetic"
realization followed logics immanent to the field.
order to make a concept of the institution like this effective again, however,
it is not only historical Conceptual Art that has to be contextualized. This
was pointed out, not least of all, by Rachel Weiss. Weiss, one of the curators
of "Global Conceptualism" (New York 1999), probably one of the most
important historicizing Conceptual Art exhibitions that also broke with US
hegemony in this field, also reiterated her criticism of Benjamin Buchloh, who
did not mention the protest movements of 1968 in his discussion of Conceptual
Art. In the end, though, Weiss stressed that what is playful and sensual about
Conceptual Art should not be neglected alongside the political. Just don't
"over-politicize". Where she is certainly right, on the other hand,
is that visuality was and is not the opposite pole to the political. Design and
street need not be mutually exclusive.
After Conceptual Art". Conference and book presentation, 10-11 November
2006, Generali Foundation, Vienna.
Alexander and Sabeth Buchmann (Ed.): Art After Conceptual Art, MIT Pess 2006. Available also in German.
Tony: Conceptual Art, Phaidon Press 1998