In a previous issue, METROPOLIS M asked artists what role they believe art plays in today’s crisis-battered world. We continue the discussion here with a contribution from Anna Tilroe, who in the form of a letter, asks whether the art world, certainly in the Netherlands, is really interested in social engagement.
Do you ever read the Artforum website? I sometimes take the plunge, usually in an overly courageous mood, because I know what the result will be: a deep sense of despondency. Each time, the question forces itself on me of how believable art still is, when it functions in a context of everything we can imagine as the eptome of Western decadence.
Glamour events, parties, narcissistic exhibitionism and apocalyptic morality – these seem to have become as inseparable a part of art as the awe-inspiring flow of capital, speculative art investments and open conflicts of interest. I know, here in the Netherlands, we do not like to talk about this side of the art world. It does not fit with our image of the free artist, the unselfish gallery owner, the righteous collector and the Thorbeckian autonomy of the subsidizing foundations that we so cherish. As a result, we have to go to the websites of Artforum or Frieze in order to read that we are actually not far behind what is happening in the big art world. There, I read that the director of Art Rotterdam has declared that ‘art fairs have become more like exhibitions and biennials have become more commercial,’ which is true, but nobody here is ringing any alarm bells.
Nonetheless, we have every reason to do so, because if it no longer matters whether, for example, Manifesta is organized by independently operating curators or evolved from a direct collaboration between major collectors and galleries, then art has become the definitive plaything of all kinds of special interests, and we have to fundamentally rethink the idea of the freedom of art and the independent development of art. To be honest, I feel there is more urgency here than in the question you proposed in the ‘Urgent’ issue of METROPOLIS M a few months ago: ‘In art, is it inappropriate and naïve to still dream of a better world?’
Of course the question is naïve. It presumes a kind of outside position on the part of art, from which utopian balloons can be let loose. You know as well as I that such an outside position does not exist at all, at least not beyond the studio. Art has always been bound to certain interests, whether those of a social class, a political movement, or an economic system. The structure of our subsidy system is no exception. In this context, I would like to refer to the interesting pamphlet by Jonas Staal, Post-Propaganda, which has received little attention (METROPOLIS M included). Staal writes that the autonomy of art and the artist is simply appearance, ‘a myth to which politics give the desired face, because isn't it precisely the visual arts, when they are self-critical, questioning, open, tolerant, continually developing and full of interest for others, that give the desired face to democratic politics?’
Staal has touched on a sensitive issue. Just look at how such countries as the United Arab Emirates, China and Russia use of the biennial exhibition formula to pin appealing medals of freedom, tolerance and openness onto their own breasts. Free art is also the desired face of the Western ‘free’ market economy, of which the art market is an exclusive segment. It gives moral authority to movements of capital whose origins are often shadowy at best: money that is spent on something culturally important cannot, or can no longer be bad. But how culturally important is art today? What still exists of the 20th-century idea that a work of art is the seismograph of the mood and the spirit of an age? And if it is true, who reads its messages, for whom and to what purpose?
These are questions that concern me and which I go into in another publication. For the moment, I would like to point out a statement by Jeffrey Deitch, formerly a sensation-oriented gallery owner in New York and recently appointed director of one of America's biggest museums, the MOCA in Los Angeles: ‘From now on, the avant-garde is made up of the ten best-selling artists.’ At which point he ecstatically added that we ‘have consequently moved from the art market to the art industry,’ and that the art world has become ‘an exceptional platform for cross-marketing’.
That was no bluff. Louis Vuitton shops with store windows by Olafur Eliasson, Prada with Ed Ruscha as photo model, the Hugo Boss Award, the hundreds of artists’ labels for Absolut Vodka are just a few examples of cross-marketing interests. The art world usually writes this off as a contemporary form of patronage or as a positive exchange between art and industry, something that politicians and economists are happy to hear. What is rarely mentioned, however, is the effect of this on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to as the symbolic value of art. That value, which is the opposite of economic exchange value, is determined by the degree to which people believe in the authenticity, power of expression and exceptional cultural importance of art. That belief has been persistently and increasingly eroded as market thinking penetrates deeper and deeper into the art world, blowing hollow bubbles into the autonomy of art.
I will not go into the effect that this development has on art museums, their collection policies and their social and cultural positions. But I am sincerely concerned that this discussion has not yet really begun, or perhaps it has in limited circles, but not at the broad, society-wide scale that institutions with such important cultural positions deserve. Nor will I elucidate the shortcomings in art education or the omnipotence of the foundations. How has all this come to be? In the debate about the cardinal changes that have taken place at such lightning speed in the art world, why do we not succeed in giving this issue real urgency? Could the reason perhaps be that theoretically, the art world supports social engagement, but in practice, it prefers a self-imposed insulation?
This question not only concerns the art world in our own country. We need only look at how the curators of the recent Istanbul Biennial formulated their ambitions: ‘The culturalization of politics, promoted by neoliberal “diversity” (…) must be replaced by the politicization of culture. Today when the dilemma “barbarity or socialism” is more real than ever and the future of the world appears divided between pauperized war zones and the stable fascistoid systems of the rich zones, this is our task.’ It is amazing language, but what does it mean? Where is the socialism with which we are able to make culture a political weapon?
We need only look at our own socialist parties for the answer: it has been buried. It is watered down and polluted by neo-liberal market thinking. However happy I am to read Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, I fail to believe in the rebirth of Marxism. For that, their philosophy lives too far removed from the immediate political and social arena. Worse, I fear that their popularity in the art world has sooner turned them into theoretical hype than a political field of strength à la Sartre and Foucault. Because – and as editor of a prominent art magazine, you will endorse this – within the art discourse itself, the speed of turnover is very high. Here too, the market rule prevails, in which something from yesterday can never be as good as something from today. As a result, every curator of a major exhibition is expected to embrace a new theoretical statement, preferably based on a thinker whom no one had previously even considered.
It was certainly an original idea for the Istanbul Biennial to dig Bertold Brecht out of the cupboard. But as Brecht indicated in 1945, because of the absence of a revolutionary movement, his Dreigroschenoper had been reduced to ‘pure anarchism’, so it was for the curators of this biennial, that absolutely nowhere was it possible to discover any conceivable inclination to revolution of any kind. But that did not stop them from attributing to art the capacity to single-handedly bring about radical turnaround.
Domeniek, you wrote that for television I had called this biennial nostalgic. That is true, and I would go even further to say that it was a manifestation of ‘radical chic’. The political engagement that it propagated had so little to do with reality that one of Turkey's most powerful business tycoons was happy to be its main sponsor. Adding to that, in Istanbul, I saw proof that expectations are being projected onto art that it cannot possibly fulfill. As all avant-garde movements have discovered, if one truly wants to talk about art and the future world, art needs a broader support base than just the art world alone. It must seriously be a part of the public debate and shed the yoke of wildly expensive sensationalism, of being the alibi for the super-rich or the hobbyhorse of academics.
Here lies a task for you, for myself and for everyone who calls themselves a critic or curator. It is not enough to describe art according to the discourse of the day. What matters today more than ever before is that the weighty questions that art poses be brought into the opinion pages and public forums. These are questions about whom and where we are and how we want to be. These are moral questions, and this is the painful point: we are afraid of that. Art is deemed to be something that stands well beyond everything that has to do with morality, philosophy of life and a sense of responsibility, a concept that we often see enlarged as caricature in public media, films, and today, in a considerable portion of the art world itself.
At the same time, art, so we hope, keeps our indestructible desire for a better world alive and well. I hear that hope in your question. But as long as it is detached from ourselves, it remains a non-obligatory, naïve question: do we still dare, as all the avant-garde movements have done, to dream of a better humanity? Look at the art. In the art, we see the most unexpected, complex and refined ways of formulating the answer. It is up to us, the critics and curators, to have the courage and the conviction to carry that forward, as broadly and as expansively as possible.
with respects from a colleague,
Anna Tilroe is an art critic and curator based in Amsterdam.
Anna Tilroe’s booklet, ‘De Ja-sprong, naar een nieuwe vitaliteit in de kunst’, will be released this spring by Querido Publishers.
translation: Mari Shields