In art, there are no rules. French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a wooden stool and called it ready-made art; photographer Andres Serrano immersed a crucifix in a basin of his own urine; Performance artist Chris Burden had his friend shoot him with a .22 rifle in the middle of a gallery. The art world remembers renegades and dissidents. But even in its own realm, art is singularly self-aware.
Instead of getting angry, artists take revenge. Instead of lamenting the shortcomings of society, artists brazenly confront those responsible. From this heterodox mindset was born the movement of institutional criticism, a response to the institutions and industries that control art.
Think of it this way: how many times have you slyly thought, “I could have done that” while browsing through a modern art exhibit? Granted, you or any toddler could splatter paint on a canvas or pull the trigger on Burden, but the fact is, you didn’t because you didn’t think about it in first. Moreover, whatever comparable works of art you may have created in your lifetime have not been legitimized by the physical spaces of the gallery or by the institutions of the museums themselves. And finally, what makes art art is the aesthetic, cultural and institutional space it occupies. A pot of piss is worth nothing in Serrano’s basement but worth thousands in a museum because some powerful people have judged it that way.
The inherent role of politics in art has long been debated. From my point of view, although not always overtly propagandistic, every work of art is a demonstration of power – whether on the part of the artist, at the institutional level or in the way it is interpreted publicly. Through institutional criticism, artists have attempted to overturn this narrative. In fighting against the art institution, which had come to be seen as a space of “cultural confinement”, they sought to vilify the principles and power structures behind the distribution of art and ideas.
Contemporary artist Hans Haacke attempted to show documentation of business dealings between one of New York’s biggest slum landlords and wealthy art officials in an exhibit that was abruptly canceled for artistic impropriety by the director from the Guggenheim.
In what I consider to be one of the most emancipatory feminist acts despite the controversy it sparked, performance artist Andrea Fraser distributed several copies of a DVD documenting her sexual encounter with an art collector who had paid him a large sum of money not for sex. but to participate in his work. Her performance was more than a sex tape – it criticized the power structures of the art world which Fraser says are already exploitative and look like prostitution.
Art did what it always does – accentuate injustices, offer alternatives, and push for a better future – and it worked. As radical as their projects may seem, these renegade artists set out to repair the art world by exposing its flaws through their practices. The criticisms they made were consequently absorbed by art institutions and lauded by the very power structures they once denounced. Nearly 40 years after the creation of such works, Fraser wrote in an essay in Artforum that “the practices now associated with ‘institutional critique’ have to many seemed, well, institutionalized”.
But why stop at the relatively microcosmic art world? I hope other rebels, marginalized groups and freethinkers will follow adapt by pushing their respective sectors to improve their conditions. The practice of institutional critique as a tool for self-examination and improvement is extremely valuable and applicable to all areas of society at large.
As in all social and artistic movements, iconoclasts come from the margins. We denounce the shortcome from the institutions we live under – educational equality, gun control, misogyny, racism – but through art we know that the very critiques of these grievances themselves can be more than a choir peripheral voices of dissent: they can become part of the institution and embedded in our culture. There could very well come a time when, just as Haacke and Fraser accepted the institution they ridiculed, the student activists of Parkland, Florida, and the women of Time’s Up will come to terms with a greater institution that undermines them. currently.
From artists we can learn to question everything, to never take anything at face value, to be our own internal watchdogs, to fearlessly challenge the institutions we unknowingly live under, to force them to work for us as it should. Taking advantage of the anarchy and freedoms of the art world, artists force us to ask ourselves how we can do better and pave the way for a better future. It is up to our bureaucrats, leaders and politicians to follow their example.
Catherine Yang is a second-year communications student. She is also deputy editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “State of the Art”, airs every other Wednesday.