The end of the art system

In September, CHART art fair in Copenhagen, will have a series of talks titled “The End of the Art World as We Know It”. Ironically, the title is reflective of the current “art world” which invented and exhausted the trope of naming projects after pop songs, yet persists with the practice. Case in point, the most celebrated exhibition in Venice this year, titled after a song by dear Leonard. In the last post, Kolumba Director Stefan Kraus lamented on how the art system interferes with the spiritual possibilities of art. I will use “system” instead of “world”, because it is slightly less abstract: there is a system which is material and visible, made up of institutions, businesses, and people, whereas there is no “world.” If anything, the art system is a region.

Before we can think about the end of the art system, it needs to be defined as much as possible. There is a system in which contemporary circulates in as commodities, whether or not the works or ideas flowing inside this system have a clear exchange- or use-value. This is a useful way to distinguish contemporary art from other kinds of art which are ignored in discussions in trade magazines, for the most part. The art system consists of art schools, museums, galleries, artist-run spaces, auction houses, biennials, triennials, public and private foundations, government funding for the arts, magazines, blogs, apps… they traffic in a particular language (usually in English) and rely on a ever-contested set of narratives, values, traditions, and ideals. These branch off western narratives and values, art historical tales created in the last centuries but cast backwards on objects dating back to the dawn of discoveries, activating them in a marionette- or zombie-raising-from-the-dead-like fashion towards ends that serve the present more than the past.

However, part of what defines contemporary art is it’s elasticity, the ability for the system to expand and to contract, incorporating something at one point in time and wholly ignoring its existence or de-valuing it in another. Lowery Stokes Sims was the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the New York Times asked her about the new Met Breuer’s attention to African American art, she said,“The canon is like a rubber band, you can stretch it, but there’s always the danger it’s going to snap back.” In other words, the art system’s worst quality is that it can be inclusive in a way that is self-serving, short-sighted, and reactionary, rather than with genuine interest in “widening the goalposts” (that idiom for contemporary art’s productive is used by Lynne Cooke) for the long-term. Driven by the people in the capitalist economies in which contemporary art thrives, its motivation to include certain people, ideas, places, and objects, at certain moments cannot be extricated from profit motives. That doesn’t mean that incredible things can’t happen within that system–to the contrary.

My malaise about contemporary art has only to do with a tipping of the scales towards profit and material vs. the spiritual and the nourishing–the possibilities described by Kraus. This doesn’t result in a desire to leave the field. In fact, the malaise also has to do with feeling trapped in the field by my inclination, narrow skill set, and a strong belief in art in spite of it all. It is something that can be translated to doing other things, certainly, but there are few areas in the world, perhaps no other field that is quite so permissive and at the same time, so self-reflexive, questioning, critical, and concerned with history (in theory) than art.

I don’t lament art’s relationship to capital, because it could engender as many good things as bad, but it takes human will to maintain a balance or to tip it toward something “holy”. Capitalism is not a ghost, after all, it was invented by people and it is controlled by people–therefore people are not powerless in the face of it; we are the system, even if we do not hold equal power within it. The art system “as we know it” is “over” (or feels “over”) for some, because currently it is driven too far toward profit: powerful people within or on the cusp of the system realized that art was a useful vehicle for profit accumulation and highjacked art as a means to non-aesthetic ends. Those of us who feel something has “ended” are those who pay close enough attention to not be fooled by what is going on, in this respect. And by extension, there are too many parties, too much money flaunted by those one side of the set of scales (collectors, directors, top artists and gallerists) in front of those on the other side (artists, writers, editors, the majority of the art-going public) who have to either pretend not to notice or pretend there is no difference or pretend not to care–but pretend all the same, lest the next paycheck fails to arrive. And it is no coincidence that there is also too much substance abuse, too much depression, too much isolation, too much traveling, too much precarity, too much ego, and too much self-destruction. It’s not energizing, it’s tiring.

I want to know what I am searching for when I have the impulse (vs. professional obligation) to look at art. I don’t think it’s an escape from the self or escape from the cultivation of an inner life–it can be that, or it can be a means to self-reflection and reflection on the world. But there is not enough quiet today in these spaces for that to happen–I am not referring to crowds (I hate crowds) but I mean in what is presented and how it is presented. Where is the comfortable bench, the time to just sit and think, the space and discomfort of getting lost, to interpret without being told what something is, the feeling that we are at the receiving end of something that was produced for a kind of love of the world, slowly, honestly, perhaps with thanks to MacDonalds, Nike, etc. but not in service of them. That feeling is getting harder to chase after, much less find.

But it’s not just the economic and technological conditions which determine the changes in the art system–what makes it feel “over.” The growing audience for art is changing what is shown, and how as well. The audience has a voice, where in the past it was a silent receptor, for the most part, and the specialized language around art acted as an invisible fence which deterred parts of the general population from partaking. These audiences are questioning the thin western narratives cast backwards and forwards by art history, particularly when it comes to diversity and the lack of representation of artists of color. This is a form of widening the goal posts. At the risk of sounding cynical, to an extent, the voices of these crowds are powerful to the extent that they influence ticket sales at museums and the degree to which they make institutions’ board members become uncomfortable at social gatherings. The art system needs to expand, and it needs to do so in a critical and considered way that entails infrastructural changes (hire curators of color, make education more affordable, etc). Otherwise, it will bloat faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate; and when that band snaps, it will leave a painful and reactionary sting.

So there are two things causing the “over” feeling: that art has been highjacked as a means to accumulate causing “us” (the “middle class” evokes an image of a teeter totter, more than a set of scales, as there are people who slide back and forth on either side of the fulcrum) to lose faith in what is being shown to us within the art system and then there is the new, vocal audience who is exhibiting faith for the first time by attempting to influence institutions through protest, open letters, and calls for exhibitions or artworks to be closed or taken down.

These actions typically entail an allegations of cultural appropriation. The irony is that bell hooks, who pioneered this kind of cultural critique and is a common reference in these debates, believes that the museum is the perfect place for contemplating the things we don’t like in society. Exhibitions should be a means of exposure and conversation, a way to bring something to light in a representational fashion, in order to create enough distance to have a discussion about it. The issue at the moment seems to be the general confusion between representation and reality exemplified best by the last election. The confusion is also a result of genuine pain and fear felt by people of color, for whom representation has a history as a means of violence (eg. lynching photos), which needs to be assessed and taken seriously. Likely, these protests will not lead to institutions taking down or canceling exhibitions. Regardless, they are, already, necessarily changing how institutions behave in the future.

On the one hand, this means museums all over the world but mainly in the US are thinking harder about how to exhibit a more diverse range of artists–some critically, some token-istically–and it also will necessarily mean that they will tip toe around difficult work that needs the framework of the gallery in an effort to prevent potential bad publicity. We need museums to take (educated) risks and to make (well-intentioned) mistakes. (I am tempted to cite Arendt’s definition of the public sphere… ). We don’t need them to reproduce the inequality of the status quo in the spaces of the art system. But there is a space beyond “include = good, exclude = bad”, which entails a curatorial responsibility to frame contentious works purposefully and properly, and to encourage critique on the part of their audience with a larger goal to move artistic practice and engagement in a positive, nourishment-driven direction reflective of larger goals of fashioning a more free and open society. To quote Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” The museum can be the “field”, but like anything in this “system”, we created it, we have the potential to influence it, to maintain it, and to destroy it.

Something is certainly ending, and we are determining what will emerge simultaneously with every action. There is no run away train, just a lot of backseat drivers yelling at a lying captain.

Image caption: exhibition view: The boat is leaking. The captain lied. Foundazione Prada, Venice, 13 May – 26 Nov 2017. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti.