17 11 06

Just don't over-politicize! or: Design Instead of Institutional Critique

Jens Kastner

With raised clubs police in helmets run towards a group of demonstrators, who have withdrawn under the arches around St. Mark's Square.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.

At 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.

Nevertheless, 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).

You 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.

In 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.


"Art After Conceptual Art". Conference and book presentation, 10-11 November 2006, Generali Foundation, Vienna.

Alberro, Alexander and Sabeth Buchmann (Ed.): Art After Conceptual Art, MIT Pess 2006. Available also in German.

Godfrey, Tony: Conceptual Art, Phaidon Press 1998

Jens Kastner


Aileen Derieg (translation)


other languages

Just don't over-politicize! or: Design Instead of Institutional Critique Nur nicht überpolitisieren! oder: Design statt Institutionskritik