Institutionalisation for All

Dave Beech tackles an old taboo

Institutionalisation in art is taboo. It is also rife. Art’s institutions do not lag behind contemporary practice as they typically have since the emergence of Modernism and the Avant Garde. Funding, retrospectives, sales, monographs, prizes, major public works, honours, professorships and trusteeships are not restricted to old-timers these days. Young art is welcomed without delay into art’s established institutions at a time when contemporary art is growing as an industry, extending its pull on the tourist economy, increasing the popular recognition of its leading practitioners (now celebrities) and developing global brands. If institutionalisation once lurked ominously in the distance for the avant-garde radical, today it is instantaneous, ubiquitous and unexceptional. But what do we mean by ‘institutionalisation’? Here’s an example, taken more or less at random: Alexander Alberro, writing about Lawrence Weiner in 1998, describes the art establishment, not uniquely, as ‘the privileged circle of an elite, institutionalised, bourgeois culture’. Here and elsewhere, institutionalisation is taken to be a key feature of contemporary art. On occasion, though, art seems to escape institutionalisation only to be captured by it once more. Alberro laments that, by the 80s, artist-run galleries ‘had become established, with professional administrators who developed expanded exhibition programmes and sought general audiences’. Something vital is ostensibly lost in this process of institutionalisation. One of the keys to understanding this largely unspoken and unexplained distaste with institutionalisation is what Pierre Bourdieu calls art’s ‘inverted economy’, whereby art is esteemed for the distance it takes from the established measures of value: wealth, power, popularity, etc. Institutionalisation occurs when the social system gets a grip on art, threatening art’s autonomy, independence and dissent.

If the argument against institutionalisation in art is not to merge with the conservative defence of art as a minority culture of permanent values threatened by the masses and dumbing down, then it must engage with the specifics of the social system that art is gripped by in the process of institutionalisation. The Situationist concept of ‘recuperation’ does just that. Criticism and dissent are enlisted by the Spectacle to support the existing networks of power, privilege and hierarchy. The Communist, rebel and avant-gardist may be consumed, merchandised and spectacularised as easily and straightforwardly as anything else. ‘Dissent is turned into a spectacle of its own, and rebels become spectators of their own rebellion’, writes Sadie Plant, who provides the clearest account of the recuperation of avant-garde art in her 1992 study of Situationism The Most Radical Gesture. She explains the core issue precisely: ‘Dada’s anti-art and surrealism’s subversions have both assumed the mantle of institutionalised art, with their works exhibited, consumed and reproduced in contexts which relieve them of all critical content’.

The classic case of institutionalisation in which the Avant Garde is recuperated by the dominant categories and values of art is that of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, when it is repackaged by the Museum of Modern Art as a beautiful modernist object. The urinal may be worthy of aesthetic attention but to frame it in terms of an untroubled aesthetic or formal experience is to reassert the categories and values of art’s institutions over the subversion of those institutions by anti-art and the values of the readymade. It is an act of recuperation which converts the avant-garde critique of art into an example of acquiescent art. The argument for the complete and final recuperation of the avant-garde would be safer if the history of the reception of the readymade and anti-art were stabilised indefinitely at the point when Alfred H Barr insisted on the readymade’s beauty. Rather than preserving the pre-established cultural settlement, however, the institutionalisation of anti-art has infected art’s institutions with a critical discourse on art’s institutions. In fact, over the last 10 to 15 years art’s institutions have reconfigured themselves largely in terms of the categories and values of the Avant Garde, undoing much of the curatorial work that had converted the Avant Garde into an aesthetic style or spectacular cul-de-sac.

I am not claiming that the Avant Garde has won the battle against art’s institutions, but it would be wrong to regard the recuperation of the Avant Garde as complete and final. If the Avant Garde remains institutionalised today it is not on the same terms as the original aesthetic domestication of the Avant Garde. Recuperation has to be renegotiated and reapplied continuously in order to be maintained. What’s more, the recuperation of anti-art cannot place anti-art beyond the reaches of radical reclamation. By putting anti-art on view, despite being framed as authorised, the institution thereby makes avant-garde art available for a public that cannot rule out scrutiny by dissenters. To say this is to echo, in another context, what Raymond Williams said about literacy: the masses were taught to read primarily so that they would attend more closely to the Bible, but literacy skills also allow the masses to attend more closely to Marx. Recuperation only seems to be irreversible because the social forces that call for the recuperation persist in the maintenance of that recuperation. And since the social forces that underpin subversive culture continue to challenge the given social hegemony, recuperation is fragile.

In Carol Duncan’s 1995 analysis of the civilizing rituals of the art museum, the institutions of art are characterised as scripting behaviour. The old humanist sense of individuals making their own meanings across a neutral continuum of time and space is challenged by the Foucauldian conception of institutions as regulating discourses that produce subjectivities. According to Duncan in the institutions of art viewers enact a drama of enlightenment. The effect of the institution, in her view, is indiscriminate: it is no different for viewers faced with anti-art, avant-gardism and Pop: ‘In the art museum, even reproductions of beer or soup cans achieve this meaning as do other works that depend heavily on nonart objects for their form or materials’. Recuperation, as it is described here, is an effect of the cultural capital that is conferred on the artwork by the authority of the institution that houses and frames it. However, the work and the gallerygoer are not institutionalised without remainder. As Duncan points out: ‘In reality, people continually “misread” or scramble or resist the museum’s cues’. Institutionalisation is never complete and final.

For the Avant Garde to hold a legitimate place within art’s institutions and retain its avant-garde content is not to cancel the problem of institutionalisation but to point to an alternative reading of the taboo on institutionalisation. What happens to avant-gardism when it is institutionalised as mainstream, when transgression has been normalised, or when resistance has become academic, official and predictable? The recuperative logic of this kind of institutionalisation is that of the paradox in which dissent occupies the place of power. Apart from the fact that this sort of thinking overstates the power of the avant-garde legacy within art’s institutions, this paradox is tied to the misreading of avant-gardism as having no content of its own other than the negation of the dominant culture. If instead we think of the various avant-garde demands – the death of the author, the attack on the primacy of the visual, the dematerialisation of the art object, etc – not as mere negations of dominant practices but as principled practices in themselves, then it is no great shame that they get taken up by art’s institutions. It is only when the political content of such avant-garde tactics is thought to be drawn entirely from their opposition to dominant practices, rather than their intrinsic qualities, that their institutionalisation seems to cancel their critical content. This leads to a counterparadox, in which the defenders of the avant-garde secretly invest in the maintenance of the established social system in order to justify its own opposition. Here the taboo on institutionalisation is a conservative impulse which hopes that nothing will change.

Compare the development of feminist, civil rights and gay activism which ultimately forced laws forbidding prejudice against gender, sexuality and race. Do we want to argue for a return to a time of open and legal prejudice, to sacrifice the rights, happiness and safety of millions, so that we could preserve the radical purity of the movement before it had had its impact on the state? Ultra-radicals pay a heavy price for their allergy to institutionalisation: they prefer the purity of protest to the contingencies of real social change. Slavoj Zizek has spoken about the Left’s reluctance to grasp the nettle of power in similar terms. The taboo on institutionalisation effectively prevents the social and cultural transformation. In art this means that cultural dissenters end up bemoaning every attempt by art’s institutions to adapt to the demands of cultural dissent. Worse still, by navigating their practice according to the taboo on institutionalisation, the ultra-radical becomes nothing more than a negative image of the institution rather than an alternative to it that cuts across the values of the institution instead of merely inverting them.

The art gallery is a disciplinary apparatus, for sure. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between practices of adapting oneself to the existing institutional arrangement and contesting the institution by occupying it differently. Art’s existing institutions can be reused independently if they are treated as contested spaces. Independence, resistance and dissent have to be manufactured. Flight from trouble is not always an effective technique for generating radical independence. Establishing a physical distance from the existing institutions often turns out to be a red herring, failing to guarantee independence in a fuller sense. It is clear that a number of artist-run spaces are set up entrepreneurially to catch the attention of the market and art’s leading public institutions. Such spaces may be funded and managed as independent concerns, but they are in no way ideologically or culturally independent of art’s institutions. A stronger brand of independence would entail some substantial divergence from business-as-usual. The first condition of art’s independence is not art’s isolation but its contestation of the cultural field, either by setting up alternative spaces or by occupying existing spaces differently.

The taboo on institutionalisation can be dropped by rethinking the relationship between practices and institutions. In his 1981 book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an alternative framework. In his discussion of what ethical discourse refers to, MacIntyre argues that to say something is ‘good’ is to say that it corresponds to the internal goods of a practice. A good farmer farms according to the internal goods of farming. Cheating can only ever achieve external goods, not the internal goods of a practice. When institutions are brought into the picture, so are external goods. Having said this, though, MacIntyre points out that institutions do not only threaten practices, they also sustain them. Practices are to institutions what the individual is to the polis in classic Greek democracy: the human being separated from the polis is deprived of some essential attribute of being human; one cannot practice being human when one is not included within the institutions of social being. Likewise, institutions underwrite the internal goods of a practice.

Amateur sport, in MacIntyre’s schema, focuses on the internal goods of the practice while professional sport is distorted by external goods such as money and status. It is clear, however, that amateur sport is sustained by its own institutions. The football club is an institution, as is the pub that the pub team organises itself around; the small group of local enthusiasts who coach the under-7s, under-10s and under-14s teams and the parents who clean the kit on a rota basis: these are the homegrown institutions that nourish amateur sport. And a comparable set of homegrown institutions can be found in art’s independent, critical, avant-garde sector. Avant-garde movements are littered with homegrown institutions. Let’s be clear about this: alternative spaces, artist-run galleries and artist-led art magazines are institutions. When Alberro laments the institutionalisation of artist-run galleries he obscures the fact that they were institutionalised all along. The same is true of the Cabaret Voltaire, the Judson Dance theatre, Art-Language magazine, Artist Placement Group, Variant magazine, Bank space, and the Copenhagen Free University: without such institutions the Avant Garde would be stillborn. Critique, if it is to have a transformative effect, needs to build alternative institutions. If critical culture is not to be converted into mainstream culture without remainder then it needs to institutionalise its alternative values.

Info Centre, a project space set up in East London by Henriette Heise & Jakob Jakobsen in the late 90s, broke the taboo on art’s institutionalisation through what Heise & Jakobsen call ‘self-institutionalisation’. The first info sheet of the Info Centre stated: ‘We are committed to an understanding of art practice that is not exclusively related to the making of art works, but also includes the establishing of institutions for the experience and use of art and generally the making of institutions for human life.’ This statement by Info Centre attests to the need to institutionalise alternatives in order to care for them. The taboo on institutionalisation in art is effectively the refusal to underwrite alternative practices with the institutions that they need and deserve in order to thrive. We do not need to avoid institutionalisation, we need fuller, wider, and more diverse forms of institutionalisation. Institutionalisation for the few needs to be replaced by institutionalisation for all.

Dave Beech is an artist and course leader in fine art at Sheffield Hallam University.

First published in Art Monthly 294: March 2006.

Sponsored Links