23 January 2016

Canon Fodder: Institutionalized, II

From a recent interview with Hal Foster at Mute, prompted by the publication of his latest book, Bad News Days...
JDM: It’s interesting that you dedicate this book to those art spaces and journals. At one point in the book you say that, ‘we might reassure ourselves’, when faced with some of the art you are discussing, by relating it to some historical precursors. I wonder though how much the modernist canon that you rely on is relevant to the kind of artists who operate through those same grassroots venues and journals. It seems to me that that particular art history and canon is no longer the context within which a lot of younger artists see their work operating, or not in any kind of privileged way.

HF: I don’t discuss the split between contemporary practice and postwar practice very much in this book. Certainly modernist art is quite distant, but then again I think when ambitious artists develop they do have connections to the past that they might not recognise and that it may be incumbent upon others to extract. So, for example, I was surprised when I wrote about the abject that there would be connections to Bataille, and that when I wrote about the mimetic that there would be a different Dada that would emerge. I don’t think that that is an imposition on my part. I think ambitious practice always reconfigures history. So I do understand that there is this disconnect but new lines also open up. Certainly we’ve lived through a long epoch of art in the context of cultural studies and artists are a lot more involved in the social and the political in a synchronic way and so artists think about work as just so many projects. That tends to devalue the diachronic and the history of medium. But the serious ones, I think, come around to that question too. To sustain a practice you have to develop a language and that language demands an engagement with the past.

And later in the same discussion...

JDM: Swinging back to questions of education, now that the academic institution is no longer a place to find shelter, would you agree that contemporary art has become a holding category for culture generally and, if you do agree, what do you think the positives and negatives of that situation might be?

HF: Well I think that’s right. One thing that struck me with the emergence of relational art was how compensatory it seemed, you know, like: ‘Oh, social relations elsewhere are diminished, if not destroyed, perhaps we can use art as a site for interaction.’ I feel like there’s real pathos there, but also real force, I don’t just mean to decry it. It’s a sad reflection on other spaces and other institutions if that is the case. This is the condition of neoliberalism that most people, even its champions, will admit; it wants to deregulate everything. The ravaged institutions that remain have an enormous amount of work to do. In the United States that’s usually primary schools, where all sorts of social problems are dumped and libraries that become homeless shelters. As the government withdraws from more and more spaces the ones that remain are really burdened. What troubles me in terms of the institutions of art is that the opposite is happening. Rather than act as the last strongholds or even leak-holds of the social, they seem to want to mimic the rest of the market place and become simply another branch of the culture industry. That’s one line of polemic in the book. What art institutions do at their best is provide a site where different temporalities and different ideas of what it means to be a subject in this society can be constellated in works of art, but rather than do that they seem to want to become relevant to the culture that so privileges presence, you know, the live. It’s the entertainment version of self-actualisation, of human capital, of how to be fully you at all times.

That last bit about the overburdening of various cultural institutions makes me think of my ambivalence about certain trends among metropolitan art museums that I noticed emerging back in the mid-to-late 1990s; all of which had sociological correlates. Firstly, the increasing numbers of “populist”-minded blockbuster exhibitions, the sort that were obviously intended to bait tourists and suburbanites; but which would also become more and more frequent as “re-urbanizing” demographic shifts and gentrification gained momentum. Secondly, there was the proliferation of “relational” art projects hosted by art institutions, which ran parallel to increasing discussion about the “disappearance of public spaces”, compounded by the closures and marginalization of smaller cultural venues and sites due to (once again) increasing gentrification. And then there was the expansion of museum educational departments via outreach programs; attempting to ameliorate -- in their meager ways -- the effects of inner-city educational inequities (i.e., a public education system that was becoming increasingly handicapped by successive cycles of ideologically-driven budget cuts and public demonization). On these last two counts, I’m tempted to think of Claire Bishop’s description of relational art projects as attempts to create temporary “functional ‘microtopias’” that offered “provisional solutions in the here and now” -- albeit in the shadow of far greater, far more extensively destructive socio-economic forces.

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