As readers of No Hassle at the Castle are well aware, the institutionalized nature of institutional critique in the fine arts is a topic I've addressed many times. Some in the mainstream art media are beginning to complain about it (finally) but others have been savvy to its mechanisms for a long time. Painter Dennis Bellone belongs to the latter group, and he recently e-mailed me this thoughtful and forceful analysis of the subject, which I happily offer here in its entirety:
Gerhard Richter, "Self-Portrait," 1996. Oil on linen, 20" x 18."
What shall I paint? How shall I paint? 'What’ is the hardest thing, because it is the essence. ‘How’ is easy by comparison.
- From The Daily Practice of Painting, by Gerhard Richter
The “Institutional Critique” is/was built into the Modernist model. If we accept that Modernism starts with Manet and the Impressionists then it follows that the Salon des Refusés which Napoleon III instated in 1863 as a result of the uproar to the rejected artists from the traditional and ‘classical’ established academic Salon is the staging of the first artist reaction to “official art”, this, at least to me, is a critique of the prevailing tastes and official art of the time and hence Institutional Critique. This is the beginning of the avant garde, not to say that there wasn’t one in the first place but this is the official mark point in history of such.
Jump fifty years into the future and this French guy with his “Nude Descending the Staircase” is asked to be a jury member in New York of a show where everything admitted will be allowed. Amongst this grouping is the drawing or painting from the child of one of the artists. This man, realizing he is being played because of his own painting's infamy at the Armory Show, the painting that his own brothers had played a part in excluding from the Societe Indépendents, decides to test their principles, that being “no jury, no prizes…” That artist? Marcel Duchamp and his "Fountain," the infamous urinal and the shot heard round the world.
For what is art and who decides?
Forward another 50 years. It is now the '60’s and a movement that some call Pop and others call Neo-Dada is now heavily the scene and Duchamp the artist infamously known falsely for having quit art to play chess has many retrospectives and is now re-evaluated and risen from the grave of history. Only the secret that few want to discuss to this day is that this man made one last major artwork over a 20 plus year period that only three people knew about. Brief side note - every time I see some young buck or buckaroos say I’m doing something Duchampian, yeah? Really? Then shut the fuck up, drop out of the artworld like he did and make one singular master work and don’t tell anyone about it for twenty years.
Flash forward nearly another 50 years and now we are in the world of total Institutional Critique. Why? What follows is my opinion as an actual practicing artist.
When Duchamp proposed the urinal as Fountain the end game as artistic praxis was already being proposed in painting by Mondrian, Malevich and Rodchenko. In fact Rodchenko had finished it with his four monochromes and retired his brushes and took up photography. We’re talking a fifteen year period from the landmark Cezanne retrospective and the follow up development of Cubism and Matisses’s fields of color. But it took artists another 30 years to really work out all of the various permutations of what the extremes could be in the field of representation and non-representation (non-objective art). Pollock’s work “broke the ice” as de Kooning said because it completely eviscerated the picture plane in a force field that few could have anticipated.
Artists got it, Barnett, Rothko et al but Pollock did it in such a way without the easel and this is key as it has made every modern, post-modern, what ever artist whether they’ve consciously or unconsciously know it, address it.
Enter Pop Art. Even the “classical” model of pop art follows this, it is no longer the representation of an object within a space a la Stuart Davis, the space of pop art is in the picture plane that Pollock made, most likely unknowingly, the field of “activity.”
I’ve never had a problem with pop art as to me it always seemed to be the perfect counter-proposal or jump through the looking glass into the reverse world that Abstract Expressionism claimed.
But artists, as much as we like to pat ourselves on the back for being real, dealing with “truth”, sincerity and “authenticity” are sometimes the most stupid people alive. And if artists don’t quite get what is happening, well then how the hell can one expect a person who makes a living like a remora, the curator or art dealer get it?
When you follow all the ism’s, like conceptualism, performance, etc and carry them to the extreme and then add a justified critique of the power structures that are defining Modernism, the only thing left is the machine critiquing itself. If everything goes and all is worthy (because we’ve jettisoned the concepts of quality and experience because of the bad daddy syndrome) and art is democratic and everyone is an artist, then the only thing left is for the institution to play this game of addressing the so called marginalized. The marginalized who just want to be part of the machine, to have their place in the sun of commerce and mass acceptance. And what do the marginalized do, they yell at daddy, the big bad institution screaming like the PIL song “we only wanted to be loved.”
What Hegel couldn’t understand in his time of writing about the thesis/anti-thesis was that there would be a time where the anti-thesis would become cool and hip and marketable, that people would jump to it because it offered freedom from the stifling confines of 19th century mores without fully understanding the full ethical and responsible weight of freedom. Marx got it though, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.
This was the beginnings of the “ME” generations or what is in my mind the most vacuous self-absorbed uncritical group of morons that have walked the earth. And every generation suffers this shit, only now they are a huge marketable force to make money off of their massive insecurities. Since all the variations of the picture plane have worked themselves out in western culture the only thing that is left is marketing. That’s what the “kids” are obsessed with, the adults too. Real experience, real taking the time to find out for ones self? Gone. The number of times I’ve had dealers say over the last 20 years, wow you’re a real artist or painter but your work is too difficult (hence unmarketable) or you need to be in some group shows curated by whatever hip momentary taste maker… well if I had a dollar.
In short the Institutional Critique Model allows curators the illusion that they are allowing the marginalized into the machine and the current four letter words of quality or experience or Art with a capital A isn't in their vocabulary. Why? Because they are too blind to see it and when Art manages to make it into the machine, they still don’t really get it. Like I said most artists don’t either. The Institutional Critique allows them to feel like they are being open and democratic and feel good without having to do any real work and at the end of the day, who in this world has time to work when one is twittering about the most recent consistency and color of the shit they just took.
Why the quote from Richter? Because when one considers or accepts that all of the various means of representation or non-representation are or have been co-opted, how does one go into the studio and try to make an artwork that might wake the great slumbering beast of humanity? I don’t know about you, my fellow reader, but I am dissatisfied with the outcome of the modernist, post-modernist whatever revolution and need or want to communicate to someone on a real level, without the words, without the bullshit. If I can make one painting that has made me feel what Velazquez or Frans Hals, or De Kooning, or Polke or Mondrian and the list goes on and on then I would have accomplished something and added to the soup or stew of art. And the question remains, when I am in the studio and consider all the misinterpretations even though I think I “get” something….what to paint, what to paint, what can I paint that won’t be misleading or misunderstood? It is a fools errand though and I will continue to be the fool.