When the American author William S. Burroughs was asked to define art, he replied, “Art is a three-letter word.” As a novelist and poet Burroughs was clearly a man of words and fascinated with their meanings. While trying to point out that a word is not the thing it represents, his answer also describes a particular form of relativism that was key to twentieth-century art. This relativism allowed art to open up beyond the practices of painting and sculpture, shifting the focus on the object to the concept. Yet by doing so it also made it more difficult to clearly formulate the meaning and possible boundaries of art, or how to measure its quality.
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan probably summed it up the best when he stated, “Art is anything you can get away with.” Today art takes on such diverse forms that it is almost impossible to define stylistically; its systems of distribution and reception are so varied, and reasons for making it are so different, that the word art can really mean anything at all. However, we continue to try to define this increasingly moving target. Perhaps instead of talking about the definition, de-definition or un-definition, or the end of art, we should ask what remains at stake in maintaining the concept of art itself.
Since its beginnings art has been concerned with its own definition, and its unstable boundaries have progressively deteriorated. Paradoxically, a work of art needs to be recognizable as art before it can stray from the norm. It might be argued that the value of an artwork in relationship to the history of art lies in the balance between how much it affirms or deviates from an existing canon. In the 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which established a new critical art-historical methodology, Rosalind Krauss traces the genealogy of sculpture from Rodin to 1960s and ’70s American Land art. While modernist forms of sculpture negated the concept of site (a Brancusi is an autonomous object), Krauss situates contemporary sculpture-namely, Minimalism and Land art-in a nexus between landscape and architecture. The work cannot be removed from its site.
The biggest take from Krauss’s text, however, is the idea that old forms of defining sculpture are no longer valid and that the criteria for evaluation must be set through the internal language of the work of art. While this methodology radically opened the field of art history to the interpretation of work that defies traditional medium specificity, it also makes all-encompassing statements on the status of the art object impossible to define.
When a word’s meaning expands to this degree, when almost any form of creative action can fit within its reach, what does it do? While art’s death has been proclaimed countless times, the call to reconsider the viability of art has come couched in more nuanced rhetoric. Perhaps the term has outlived its usefulness. We should look for another term that describes more adequately the totality of creative production when we consider aesthetic (but also social and political) gestures.
Making art has always entailed taking risks, challenging expectations and established practices, and doing away with the old. Today dinner parties and garage sales are seen as artworks, and they sit easily alongside traditional (and some would say old-fashioned) painting and sculpture. Artists are creating increasingly complex ecologies for their art, seamlessly merging the symbolic system of art and the more tangible systems of production and distribution. For example, real estate is central to the conceptual practices of artists like Rick Lowe and Theaster Gates. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Minerva Cuevas, and Jon Rubin- all established restaurants as part of their work. Most recently, Tania Bruguera has set up an immigrant community center in Corona Heights, Queens, New York and the collective Transformazium is running a public library on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. These projects suggest a radical departure from the more conventional forms of art, but perhaps more importantly, they also break from the traditional ways of experiencing and understanding the work.
These actions might mean and do more without the weight and complexity of art history or traditional definitions of art to burden them. The question that arises, however, is will the work still be considered art? One definition of art lies in the artist’s intention: the work of art is a work of art because an artist deems it so. This definition quickly falls into a chicken-and-egg scenario. Is it is a work of art because an artist made it, and if so, what constitutes an artist? Another defining characteristic of art is the longstanding Kantian idea of art’s purposelessness-the idea that it need not meet certain ends or match certain metrics in order to be considered of value. In fact the more rules it breaks, the more likely we are to consider it art.
Even in its current form, art tests the rules of the fields it consumes, never quite becoming the same as that which it critiques. Art can astonish, surprise, or amaze, but it can also shock and overwhelm, all the while maintaining a distance, sitting a space apart. And that space gives us the opportunity to think about what we do and who we are in ways we would not if artists were primarily concerned with efficiency and usefulness. When something is considered art, this is a signal to pay attention in a particular kind of way. It requests a readiness for the viewer to take what is seen and apply it broadly, allowing art to reverberate beyond its direct consequences.
There is no sense patrolling the boundaries of art to keep certain things out-it is in art’s nature to expand beyond our perception of it. The exhibition, too, can be as pliable and expansive as art is. It can stretch and sway to accommodate the urgent arguments that need to be made at any point in time. To make these arguments, it is often necessary to look outside the context of art into other relevant fields. A work might speak most clearly when paired with historical ephemera or viewed through the lens of a novel. Displaying an artwork alongside a related but distinct counterpart can increase the impact of both-the radical uselessness of the artwork sometimes speaks most clearly when situated next to the most mechanical and pointedly useful of things. As a museum professional I am interested in these questions to understand how aesthetic gestures will continue to express themselves, how curators try to mediate those gestures to an ever-growing public, and what the role and function of an art institution is today and in the future.
While many everyday products have clear benchmarks and systems for assessment, these objective standards are elusive when it comes to art and curatorial production. Assessing a thing’s quality involves measuring its excellence in comparison to other things of a similar kind. If a model is in flux, so are its standards. As art travels further afield from traditional ideas, variables increase and assessment becomes more and more difficult. How do we assess the quality of an idea? Without a measure of quality a field cannot advance, or so it seems, and forward movement proves difficult when the field is expanding outward into a number of directions.
Do we judge a work modeled after a dinner party against other such events, even if it challenges the very form it adopts? And could it be accessed against other artworks oriented in the social sphere? What about aesthetic, ethical, and moral standards? What about the participants of these projects? How are they different from or equal to the artists? We find ourselves swimming among forms and methods, and the benchmarks are set adrift. Alongside this confusion, there is also a tendency to accept new forms, bloating the field without hesitation in order to appear progressive. Rather than risk an appearance of imposing judgment, curators want to be seen as benevolent facilitators, advocating for all artists rather than making a strong case for a few. An exhibition need not only be a showcase or indiscriminate sampling of new art. It can be a crucial space to take a position on the status of art today, creating an argument through the carefully considered juxtaposition of works in a space.
Too often, part of this curatorial oversight means a disregard of the crucial element of context. To look only at a finished art product is to ignore the conditions of production and reception that make a work possible. To consider only a diamond’s color, clarity, and size is to ignore the systemic warfare and economic disparity its production and distribution are rooted in. Further, any discussion of the meaning or quality of art also deals with another, similarly contentious issue: taste. Taste, even in today’s populist environment of citizen bloggers and top-ten lists, implies a high level of education and ample leisure time. If we are honest, such subjectivities play a part in many curatorial decisions. Museums often have collection management policies to guide the accession and deaccession of works, but while quality is a word used frequently in such documents, it is rarely if ever defined. The process of assessment inevitably involves subjective considerations. The existing canon is one of the only operative benchmarks to evaluate a new work, and it was built through various decisions of taste.
While there is discussion about what curating does today, I still consider the exhibition as the primary curatorial product, a discursive argument realized through the display of artworks. The format is time-tested but still new, centuries old but full of possibility. The peculiarities of the exhibition as a unique social ritual are myriad. Its making involves elements of staging and theatricality, and its viewing is likewise a performance, whether it entails treading silently through a white cube, willingly giving oneself over to the things presented, or encountering an unusual arrangement in a familiar environment. The exhibition can be used to suspend disbelief as one does with a piece of fiction. The exhibition format is built for a particular kind of collective activity. It allows for a sense of being alone together-to be part of a shared experience. For many institutions and galleries, programming has supplanted the exhibition format at the center. In the name of innovation, many curators have abandoned exhibition making in favor of other forms, among them screenings, conversations, roundtables, lecture series, residencies, publications, meetings, and workshops. As opposed to the exhibition, which is bound inextricably-and productively-to the artifice of art, these forms are perceived to be the stuff of real life, and there is a strong desire to utilize their perceived authenticity. Such programs are equipped to draw in larger audiences than more traditional arrangements presumed to be static. Participation and interaction have come to have more currency than observation and introspection. The exhibition can be a vital way to slow down or to suspend time, allowing us to think more carefully about the world in which we exist and the role art can play in illuminating our human condition.
In the rush to explore social forms as venues for art making and curating, it is easy to forget that the exhibition is such a form-one that remains rich in untapped promise. It can fit within it every other discipline, appropriating the fields of science, architecture, theater, or television, to name a few. To abandon the transformative power of the exhibition prematurely is cynical and suggests that its possibilities have been exhausted. But it is important to make a distinction between advocating for a longstanding form and freezing it in a past or current state. When we consider the form as a significant social ritual, we must acknowledge that society is not static. As society changes, so must the exhibition, and the form of the exhibition should meet the public halfway. To say that curating should remain fundamentally about exhibition making is not to say that exhibition making should stay the same, or even that it can.
If it is true that every era in history gets the art it deserves, I fear we are not in a particularly good period. It has been a long time since a traditional contemporary art exhibition has had a strong effect on me. I feel a certain fatigue regarding art made today, and I enjoy looking at and examining historical works or even nonart objects and materials from cultural history much more. The thought that art is dead is not a new idea; critics and writers have declared the death of art repeatedly. The title for this part of this book was inspired by Arthur C. Danto’s “The End of Art” (1984), which speaks about art’s status and role in a post-historical age. Another important contribution to this discussion was clearly Hans Belting’s “The End of the History of Art?” (1983), in which he argued that more and more contemporary art was conscious of past art but was not moving art forward-thus art had become an eternal spiral of recycling, mixing, and appropriating. Danto and Belting both made various revisions to their texts and expanded on their ideas over the years, building up an enormous arsenal of supporting arguments. For both, a big, historical shift was taking place in the early 1980s, resulting from a form of internal exhaustion within a grand narrative of art history that was then neatly divided into ancient, medieval, and modern periods, having not yet undergone the drastic changes the 1990s would bring: the globalization of the art world and discourses around postcolonialism, identity politics, and even post-structuralism. More recently art historian David Joselit’s After Art (2012) looks at developments in art and architecture in the age of digital search engines, and the enormous acceleration of cultural production whereby artists and architects function more and more like information hubs of larger creative networks than actual producers of content. A further book I should highlight, and one that is a little removed from the debates found in previous publications mentioned, is Rasheed Araeen’s Art Beyond Art (2011) in which the author speaks repeatedly about practices that have a self-understanding of art but manage to avoid being seen as art within what Araeen calls the “legitimizing prison house” of bourgeois aesthetics.
To me art has never existed autonomously but was always part of a larger cultural context, shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of its time. Art was a product of its surroundings and in an ideal situation, commented on or at least reflected on the circumstances that shaped it. Making art was one way to seek answers to some fundamental questions of human existence. Not that art could ever produce answers to these questions, but each artwork could be understood as a piece of a big puzzle, illuminating the significance of life, human thought, and the world around us.
After talking with some of my close colleagues in the field of exhibition making, it seems I am not the only one who is experiencing this lethargy toward contemporary art, which on particularly bad days can even be called disillusionment. Some curators abandon the idea of making exhibitions altogether, and instead organize conferences or publish books that directly address social and political circumstances; others look at art made by so -called nonartists or outsiders; others prefer to work more and more with historical art or view contemporary art as only one of various areas that can offer discourse and materials for exhibitions, looking also to architecture, film, fashion, design, and other areas of cultural production.
Maybe curators ask too much from artists. Perhaps it is perfectly fine to work in your studio and make the work you want to make even if it does not address anything outside the very small and isolated world of contemporary art. I personally enjoy a conversation about the evolution of abstract painting in Latin America, minute details of Eastern European Minimalism, or overly theorized conceptual art, but in the long run I want to see art as part of something larger and more significant. How can we achieve that without robbing art of the autonomy it has acquired? What makes matters more complicated, if not worse, is the self-importance of a lot of contemporary art (as well as the context that surrounds it). The insularity and ignorance of the art world regarding other practices and fields is frustrating and painful.
While art as we know it has been around for over seven hundred years, the way we look at art and artists is a product of the twentieth century. What if the twentieth century idea of art and its concept of the artist no longer existed? What if we continue to keep those ideas alive when they have in fact become obsolete? What if art is no longer the radically creative and intellectual field we always thought it to be, and has regressed to be nothing more than a shadow of its former self?
I am bringing up these questions because a shift is taking place in how we understand and judge art, and this change affects curating and exhibition making. This is different from the shift that Belting, Danto, and even Joselit spoke about-it is now the result of a number of rather recent events and processes.
First, there is the almost conveyor-belt fabrication of tens of thousands of aspiring artists per year in MFA programs around the world. The advantages and disadvantages of this form of education have been debated at length and I will not get into it much here, but art schools have become mills that produce hordes of often unexceptional artists who, for better or worse, might get a shot at a career in the art world if they’re lucky but rarely contribute to the discourse around art. Their work, to put it drastically, pulls down the overall quality of what is being produced, reducing art to conceptual decoration, ready to be sold in a random gallery to collectors who match the works with the interior decor of their houses-and art ends up losing its integrity.
Art, or what many people believe to be art, has become a billion-dollar industry. While the commodification of art is not new, the level of financial power operating in the art world now is unprecedented, and so is the impact of this development on the progress of art. That there is serious money to be made in the art world has changed the rules of the game dramatically and irreversibly. There is now an enormous art market with million-dollar auction records and hundreds of art fairs that need art objects for sale, offering art as if it were made for a shopping-mall context. In addition, there is an ever-increasing community of contemporary art galleries around the world, many of which do excellent work and many of which do not-but all must constantly show and sell art to keep their spaces running.
The fact that many museums have turned into tourist attractions and entertainment centers is another development to consider, as audience figures become the main focus for directors, boards, and curators. Risk-taking exhibitions that articulate a passionate point of view or take a stand on a political or social subject are few and far between. The alliances made between art dealers, museum patrons (most often art collectors), and the institutions are frightening and often full of conflicting interests. Given the enormous amount of art produced today, it is becoming difficult for museums to determine what to collect and how to judge the overall quality of art. The classic role of the museum as an archive that is significant to the development of art is passé. Even the most provincial museums in the West have realized that the narrative arc they have created in their collections is in most cases based on a Eurocentric worldview. Including art from the so-called margins-art made by artists from contexts previously excluded from the conversation and fields previously deemed uncollectable-is of course not the only change that museums must undergo.
The concept of a linear development of art and a straight and resolved historical master narrative is itself incredibly flawed, and for the most part has been discredited and overcome. Questioning the idea of a linear narrative of art and history also challenges the traditional reason behind the existence of museums, as well as the story of art as we know it-art that is made in a studio, exhibited in a gallery, sold to a museum, stored, analyzed, conserved, and displayed. While these narratives seem to help (some of) us to form our (cultural) identity, making us feel rooted and secure, they are most often simply subjective and speculative-and serve to affirm existing social and cultural hierarchies.
Why museums continue to buy contemporary art in traditional ways should be contested given the type of art and the amount of art produced these days. Collecting art that has a permanent importance should be the priority, as it is the foundation of why we collect in the first place. When it comes to art created at this point in history, the relevance is highly temporary, which is antithetical to the whole idea of collecting, as many works lose their meaning in a very short time. As a result, the relationships between art, art making, and museums has irreversibly changed. Art has taken on a life of its own-often disconnected from the outside world. Given the focus on temporary exhibitions and event-oriented programming in most museums, it seems as if the collecting of contemporary art in museums is and maybe should be a thing of the past. Museums, however, should continue to collect historical works that hold permanent importance in the history of art. What seems unclear, given the original mission of museums, is why they chase every new trend in today’s fluctuating contemporary-art scene.
What makes someone want to become an artist or a curator these days? There is a desire to be different and creative, but that difference often has no cause, no motivation, no articulation. There is no existential urge to change the world or question the very foundations of human thought.
On top of all this, the digital world we now live in is changing the relationship between art and ourselves more dramatically than anything else. While most online art projects still hang on to the idea of art as object or concept, transferring and translating those thoughts onto the Internet, the impact the digital world will ultimately have on our understanding of art cannot be overestimated. The majority of people encounter art today in the form of digital images found on websites, in e-mails, or via social media. This is only the beginning. What makes digital art so interesting but also so challenging is that it has no rules, no confines, no standards, no systems, and no laws. There is no standardized format for its presentation, unlike sculptures and paintings that are made for a white-cube environment. Digital art has not found a common form yet, and I doubt it will.
While some of my comments here might be a bit exaggerated-and I am certainly making m any generalizations about things that warrant more nuanced examination-it is a fact that the art context has changed significantly over the last two decades. Art has lost much of its status as a field of intellectual ambition and political opposition or resistance because of the overabundance of art, art schools, and the art market. Add to this the digital factor and we are clearly looking at the emergence of an entirely new landscape of contemporary, creative production. Whether these developments are good or bad is not the main concern. The sooner we accept that a change is underfoot, the sooner we will be able to understand how art might look after the end of art and how this will affect everyone working in the field. I would not mind if art as we know it was a historical phenomenon of the twentieth century if something else would step in that could critically, fearlessly, and beautifully investigate what it means to be alive today.