06 09 07

The Sublime Whiff of Criticality

On the Functions of Documenta

Radical Culture Research Collective

Radical Culture Research Collective (RCRC) is a group of activists, artists, researchers and writers in Berlin, Hamburg, London (England), Montreal, London (Canada), New York, San Francisco, Tampa, Weimar and Vienna aiming to build structures and processes for critiquing the capitalist art system, reflecting on politicized artistic practices, and developing modes of a militant praxis within and without the field of art.

Our recent discussions have revolved around the ways in which criticality is recuperated through neo-liberal managerialism.  This text, written for Radical Philosophy, briefly sketches some aspects of this problem using Documenta XII as a case study.

From Anti-Communism to Cultural Critique

Documenta, the widely publicized mega-exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany, has always had a political agenda.  The first Documenta, organized by Arnold Bode in 1955, was intended to signal to the international art world that the dark days of Nazi philistinism were definitively over and that Germany’s demonstrative openness to “avant-garde” art could be taken as a clear confirmation of the Bonn republic’s reliability as a partner to its Cold War Western Allies.  The democratic constitution imposed on West Germany did not necessarily produce the needed reflection on the fascist past.  In many ways, the new democracy continued the imperative of anti-communism by other means.  The first Documenta made the rehabilitation of the “Entartete Kunst” its main concern.  But this was accomplished selectively: politically committed artists of the left were overlooked in favor of those using the language of abstraction.  In the German national context, support for non-figurative art was a way of demonstrating a link back to the “degenerate” culture condemned by the Nazis – but without endorsing the anti-fascist avant-garde (Grosz, Heartfield, etc.).  Internationally, meanwhile, alignment with New York-centered abstraction served the Cold War cultural strategy of opposing the alleged universality and vitality of capitalist art to East Bloc social realism.  With only mild exceptions, this politically strategic cultural model was fostered by the Documentas through the following decades.  The implicit logic of national restoration attracted increasing official and corporate sponsorship over the years.

The first real disturbance in this pattern was Catherine David’s Documenta X (1997), which imposed an unprecedented self-reflection upon the institution.  Deliberately going beyond the bounds of the art system, David involved legions of critical theorists, in effect transforming the exhibition into an impressive and sustained event for reflection on the relations between politics and poetics after 1945.  Five years later, Okwui Enwezor “globalized” Documenta to an unprecedented degree, also giving more focus to the critico-theoretical frame; the exhibition was wrapped by four discursive “platforms” that grappled with the problems of unrealized democracy, truth and reconciliation processes, and sprawling mega-cities beyond the capitalist core.  We’re not claiming that these two Documentas were perfect or beyond critique, only that they broke with the prevailing logic of the Kassel exhibition in significant ways.  However, neither of these Documentas scared away the official or corporate sponsors.  Rather, they established the critical exhibition as a legitimate and acceptable form of cultural critique.

New Institutionalism and Token Criticality

While David and Enwezor tried to reject the politics of earlier Documentas by insisting on what had been deliberately omitted, Documenta XII Artistic Director Roger Buergel’s call in 2007 is for a return to a more traditional focus on aesthetic values.  Back, that is, to the bourgeois aesthetics that underwrote the Documentas up to David’s.  He announced the change in the International Herald Tribune: “For this year’s Documenta, you don’t need a sociology degree to understand the art.”  While this shift at first seems to be a repudiation of the transformations in the logic of Documenta attempted by David and Enwezor, it in fact announces that these transformations – basically the valorization of criticality – have been successfully integrated into a new, neo-liberal cultural strategy.  Criticality is retained and exhibited, but now in a merely token form.  The critique of the institution and its logic has been converted into an asset of the very same institution.  The practical result is that critique is in large part pre-empted:  since the institution itself is already critical, it can be entrusted with the task of (self-)criticism.

In this, Documenta is hardly unique.  It merely exemplifies what has been called the “New Institutionalism.”  Currently a buzzword in discussions of curatorial practice, New Institutionalism is alleged to be a pathway for institutional transformation based on principles of participation.  In “The Institution is Dead! Long Live the Institution!,” Claire Doherty defines it as a curatorial tendency that "responds to (some might even say assimilates) the working methods of artistic practice and furthermore, artist-run initiatives, whilst maintaining a belief in the gallery, museum or arts centre, and by association their buildings, as a necessary locus of, or platform for, art."

What are some of the ideologies that comprise New Institutionalism, and how do we see them at work in Documenta?  First is professionalism, that is, the idea that institutions serve as better safeguards against the influences of the market than smaller, less established organizations, which are perceived to be unpredictable, amateurish and at times too dangerously sub-cultural and entrepreneurial.  Larger institutions are seen as more professional, and thus are thought to be better suited to uphold standards for critical art practice and publishing.  Second is the belief that larger, state-funded institutions (art or otherwise) are in a better position to defend the gains of women, minorities and other marginalized groups, than are smaller or more ad hoc organizations or social movements which lack institutional clout, respectability, skills or resources.  Any conflict or dialectic between smaller and larger art institutions – and in the parallel terms of social movements, between grassroots activism and structures such as NGOs, political parties or the state – is sidestepped as unproductive and unnecessary.  Under the regime of New Insitutionalism, self-organized initiatives become invisible, redundant and undesirable.

Institutions like Documenta thus tend to become hegemonic, incorporating the efforts of smaller organizations and individuals.  Since Documenta incorporates everything, it can simultaneously claim the institutional authority of the museum and also the (formerly external) critical and oppositional position of smaller groups and organizations.  Here we recognize the neo-liberal strategy of co-opting conflict and incorporating it into carefully controlled internal management – Tony Blair’s “One Big Tent” beneath which CEOs and people on welfare happily coexist.  In this schema, conflict is simply counterproductive and inefficient.  Its irruptions may be described as fits of immature and irrational pique, and eventually be associated with “terrorism.”

The Limits of Non-Economic Capital

Documenta exemplifies the ambiguous status of prestigious, non-market events and this is reflected in the limits of non-economic capital.  This can be seen clearly in the publications project of Documenta XII, in which 90 independent art and theory magazines were invited to participate without economic remuneration.  Instead of cheques that can pay the rent, the magazines had to settle for forms of recognition and other benefits that are generally characterized as non-economic forms of capital: symbolic, social, and cultural.

As developed by Bourdieu, the notion of non-monetary capital was a conceptual tool designed to unmask class domination.  The degradation of this analytical concept by Richard Florida and others has turned it into a to class-neutral shorthand for the non-profit sector.  Today, Bourdieu’s terms are most often used to euphemize or normalize exploitative relations – and are conducive to making these relations acceptable even within critical contexts, such as Documenta.

One of our members, an editor of MALMOE, coauthored a critical response to the Documenta XII publication project.  Our remarks here draw on and are stimulated by this critique.  Most of the journals and magazines involved in the publications project are small, relatively marginal, non-profit or otherwise financially precarious organizations.  But they are also potentially “the next big thing,” hot, radical, etc. Most of them have little choice but to accept opportunities offering visibility.  This is particularly true of invitations to participate in Documenta, which enjoys the reputation of being the most critical and serious of all the international art events – a kind of global standard for criticality.  This inherited reputation – what we can recognize as accumulated non-economic capital – is a primary element in the swirling mix of expectation and desire that makes Documenta such an appealing art world brand-name.

Small, precarious critical publications obviously find it difficult to be indifferent to Documenta’s offer.  Most of them will have to agree to work for free, producing content for Documenta and thus confirming its critical reputation, in return for the mere possibility that they may be able to convert their participation into money or other opportunities in the future.  Directly or indirectly, the effect of these forms of exchange is that contestational forms of criticality – especially those from radical or anti-institutional orientations – tend to be self-censored.  One must “play nice” or at least “not make a stink,” in order to garner social capital (connections, opportunities), or so as not to endanger one’s place in a community.  Artists from Vienna, the epicenter of this Documenta’s organization, experienced what is typical for local art scenes:  One is acquainted with the people involved, one is part of the same networks, appreciates each other, sometimes is even dependent upon each other. This involvement makes it hard to maintain critical standards that one would hold firmly onto in other contexts.  In any case, the tokenism of the criticality generated by the publication project is clear from the mode in which they are presented in Kassel:  all the journals and magazines are exhibited as objects, in a way that strongly discourages actually reading them.

Beyond the Outsourcing of Risk

In emergent forms of capitalist business management, the integration of enterprises into the market is achieved by simultaneously concentrating control within administrative centers, and dispersing or outsourcing “creative labour” to individuals or smaller enterprises with a high tolerance for risk and casualized, project-based working environments.  As a result, major consortia are buffered from market risk, which is borne exclusively by the individuals and small groups of project-based laborers.  The dynamic is the same when work formerly done by trained employees is outsourced to large, generally unpaid groups of people through open calls, competitions and other
“reality TV”-like scenarios.  The result is a wholesale outsourcing of risk.  What holds for business holds true for institutions as well.

Today, large and powerful art institutions such as Documenta, Tate Modern, the VanAbbe Museum or the Museu D’art Contemporani de Barcelona, can lay claim to both the consecrated and risky forms of cultural production.  In this model, independent forms of cultural production are “networked” into larger institutions, instead of posing a challenge or presenting an alternative.  As the Euromayday Hamburg activists observed, the institution now “takes up crucial mechanisms of self-organized projects” through incorporating their efforts.  In this way, remote, marginal or emergent activities can be exploited, or better, conditions for self-exploitation can be created.

The question remains:  why were the participating magazines and journals unable to generate a collective reflection and response to the exploitative outsourcing of research through this scheme?  To answer this question, it is important to consider why, as previously mentioned, we feel we cannot afford to say no (or in other words, to withhold or withdraw our productive labor and the symbolic value it may have for institutions).  In an increasingly competitive and precarious environment, there is a sense that any exposure, any reputation building, may finally lead to some financial stability; according to this logic, turning down any offer becomes a suicidal gesture.

The prevalence of exploitation and self-exploitation within the art field points to the necessity of a systemic analysis that can grasp these processes of neutralizing incorporation and their functions within contemporary global capitalism.  But because our willing participation in these structures is due to the underlying feeling that we have no choice, the need for alternatives also becomes urgent.  This means both articulating and enacting alternative values:  those values that lead some people to decline participation, to put their investment in “symbolic capital” at risk by being critical and making trouble.   Most of us desire recognition from our peers.  This desire need not be converted and expressed in competitive terms.   The art system is structured this way as an effect of institutional organization and the logic of markets.

To formulate alternatives, and build on past efforts, we need to consider questions such as:  How can this desire for recognition be reconfigured in terms of solidarity, rather than fighting each other for the crumbs?  How do we organize collectively, so that those who refuse to “play nice” do not do so alone?  What can be learned from social movements and the histories of struggle, so that critique is not abstracted into a curatorial theme or seminar topic that leads to no actual change?  In future texts, we will try to develop answers to these and related questions.

Radical Culture Research Collective


other languages

The Sublime Whiff of Criticality Ein Hauch von Kritik