December 10, 2007

Criticising Curation: On the Absence of Theme

Filed under: Documenta12,The Museum,Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:09 pm

I have been trying to sort out the hundreds of photographs I took at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and I came across Maria de Corral’s curatorial statement for the Italian pavilion. And I have to say right away that her curation was very good, especially when compared with Documenta 12; actually it was not simply better than Documenta 12, it was on another planet (see the Documenta 12 category on the right navigation column). But reading de Corral’s curatorial statement one gains some insight into the lack of intellectual rigour that most curators seem very content with. I had an art historical training, and also some training in philosophy. Whatever one might say about art history, such as its reification of classifications, it does possess some of the virtues of an academic approach: namely it is open to criticism and the exercise of critical distance. Contemporary curatorial practice on the other hand seems to be predominantly in the hands of people who, at some level, aspire to being artists themselves via their curatorial practice, a tendency that can lead to an abandonment of critical distance. I think this was, perhaps, the principal failing of Roger Buergel’s appallingly bad Documenta 12.

Curators are gatekeepers, therefore they have a certain responsibility to the viewer, to the general public, to society at large. And I do not think that Roger Buergel’s woolly minded, pop-poststructuralist, meandering did anyone any good. However much one might like art, that does not mean that one has abandon reason in order to appreciate it. The surrealist revolution was a long time ago when modernity was new, hopefully now we are a little more street wise, a little less wet behind the ears.

Because it is predominantly French, poststructuralist philosophy can be understood, partially, from the standpoint of aesthetics, as resonating with aspects of Surrealism (the influence of Freud, Georges Bataille, one can also mention Jacques Lacan’s connections with the surrealists). But poststructuralism is also fundamentally philosophical, it is part of an academic discourse, and if one does not understand it as such, but instead treats it as a ragbag of confused ideas that one applies to curatorial practice, then the result will be chaos, as was the case in Documenta 12. This is a serious problem because it also impacts on the contemporary concept of art and the standing of art in society. Documenta 12 is not simply a monumental failure, it is symptomatic of something more serious than that. Instead of thinking of it as an isolated disaster one can also understand it, in retrospect, as reflecting some broader problem beyond that of the individual who is Roger Buergel. In other words, Buergel may not have been simply pursuing his own peculiar labyrinthine path, he may have been amplifying a more widespread viral mutation of the notions of “conceptual”, “transgressive”, ” antiaesthetic” or “deconstructive” art.

This particular mutation has some curious characteristics, for example it is totally unconcerned with what art looks like: what is most important is the idea, except the idea can be, from a critical philosophical point of view, mush. In a way this is not an entirely bad thing because it is one strategic manifestation of the long standing project to bring art into life and allow everyone to be an artist: if one is content, that is, with bringing visually unexciting mush into life.

Hence the social ramifications of the problem foregrounded by Documenta 12. Do we actually believe that society wants or needs visually uninteresting art? If we, as a thought experiment, transpose this mutation into another field such as cinema, for example, we might consider a viral manifestation of eye-wateringly boring films, framed as High Culture.

But I’m digressing, let’s get back to Maria de Corral’s curatorial statement, remembering that compared with Buergel she is an outstandingly good curator. Yet, at the same time, there is a little Buergelian mushiness seeping through her statement. She explains:

I would like the labyrinthine path through the Italian Pavilion to be seen not as a finished story, but as a process defined in terms of relations between different subjects, forms, ideas and spaces; more like a centre of research than a mass of certainties.

We begin with the “labyrinth” and “certainty/uncertainty” cliches: we now realise, apparently, in the wake of poststructuralism, that there is no certainty which is, of course, as deluded as the notion that there can be absolute certainty. Obviously there is no absolute certainty and no absolute uncertainty. All we are doing here is playing with words without really thinking about what we are saying. Such is the unphilosophical approach to philosophy. We do need a little bit of certainty. For example, being completely uncertain about what constitutes art could be problematic. And I am afraid that in the aftermath of Documenta 12 it is no longer sufficient to say that just because something is included in a major art exhibition that it is art. Documenta 12 was revolutionary in the sense that it totally undermines George Dickie’s landmark “institutional theory of art”.

There was so much in that exhibition that wasn’t worth the title “art” that one wonders how many people are beginning to question the stability of the institution of art and its capacity to actually define what is and what is not art. And this has serious ramifications if there are significant recurrences of the Documenta 12 effect. For example, what impact might it have on the art market, which is the bedrock of the fine art system?

We need to begin reconsidering what we mean when we speak about “art”. If we take the mush-philosophical approach to the notion that art is about “ideas” then we can end up with some pretty pathetic offerings, because we can have visual artists who are not very good with ideas, and people who are good with ideas but lousy when it comes to visual expression. In contrast the intersection of the two dimensions: someone who has significant ideas and is able to express them in an interesting visual manifestation becomes a fundamental definition of what makes good art.

Curators are gatekeepers, they have a responsibility to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and people like de Corral do a pretty good job, whereas Buergel served the world a massive tureen of slop. What was at the root of this massive failure? To some extent we can find the answer in the viral impact of the Duchampian Readymade (artintelligence). At the turn of the millennium the Readymade virus has mutated into various strains, some of which can act as a kind of aesthetic cancer eating away at any socially significant notion of what art can be. But we should not blame Duchamp, it is the mutations that can cause the trouble; or, more particularly, it is important art institutional events such as Documenta which in 2007 selected for a large number of very weak strains.

Decade after decade of mutations of the Readymade (it has been ninety years since the birth of the Duchampian urinal) could be beginning to cast a pall over art at the turn of the millennium. The time has come to begin thinking seriously about how we define what is and what is not “art”. I would like to pose a very fundamental criterion, which is not meant to be absolute, but is instead intended to be a rule of thumb: generally speaking, art should be visually interesting. Surrealism was visually interesting as was much of dada. Duchamp’s urinal, which has become the centre of gravity for much contemporary art, is not visually interesting, in spite of William Camfield’s (1989), possibly ironic, claims that it should be appreciated as an object of beauty.

The urinal was a philosophical object, the first instance of truly “conceptual art”. But it only worked because of its historical position. It deconstructed the traditional notion of the work of art as a precious object, and the artist as a genius; at least it did so until it became a precious object; one of its edition of seven selling at auction a few years ago for over $1 million, and its creator became one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century: which is to say, a genius. The fact that Duchamp’s urinal became a precious object indicates that its status as a significant aesthetic, philosophical object was historically limited. It is no longer a philosophical object, instead it has become that which it sought to critique. And this should alert us to the fact that its validity as a criterion for art could also be historically limited. In other words the Readymade has become a cul-de-sac.

Let’s return to de Corral’s curatorial statement, because what follows is an interesting section leading on from the introductory sentences I quoted above; interesting because it is riddled with contradiction. De Corral continues:

I wanted an exhibition that would speak of intensity and not categories, looking only at the works without being influenced by the artist’s date of birth. It is not a historicist or linear exhibition, but one that highlights the relation between artists of different generations who discuss and work on specific ideas about art and contemporary life, putting together attitudes likened by intensity and obsessive quality. It would aim not only at the concept or at gratifying visualisation, but be rich in reflection and pleasure. My intention is to create a relationship between the existing architecture and the content; to show those themes that disturb and worry contemporary society and that the artists’ works express in a real, poetic and often visionary way. [emphasis added]

So, we discover that the curator wants to deal with “intensity”, the source of this notion is the poststructuralist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, and again one is in the zone of an uncritical consumption of fashionable philosophy. One doubts that de Corral has ever read Deleuze never mind actually compared and contrasted his ideas with those of other thinkers. Like “uncertainty”, “intensity” is a fashionable cliche in the minds of most curators. Apparently what is most important about intensities is that they abolish the need categories; this is in spite of the fact that categorisation is a fundamental way in which we think about the world around us and share our thinking with other people. But categories are pretty boring and intensity sounds cool, even though we don’t really understand what on earth it is, so we’ll just get rid of categories.

But then we find categorisation has not been totally abolished in de Corral’s curatorial plan, we see them creeping back under the guise of different words such as “specific ideas”. Now “specific ideas” sounds a lot more akin to categorisation than it does to Deleuzian “intensity”. And then, in the following sentence de Corral uses the term “themes” which, again, sounds a lot like categories to me.

What is most significant about such contradiction is that it reveals the sloppiness of thought evident in a curatorial statement written for a major exhibition, because the Italian pavilion is usually the best single curated collection of artists in the Venice Biennale, as indeed was the case in 2005 under de Corral. Fortunately she didn’t put mushily understood poststructuralist philosophy into curatorial practice as did Buergel in the 2007 Documenta. Fortunately, de Corral forgot about ditching categories and and throwing her lot in with Deleuzian “intensities” and remembered the possibility of “themes” and “specific ideas”. The result was an exhibition that was, for the most part, visually exciting and interesting; unlike Documenta 12.

Camfield, W. A. 1989. Marcel Duchamp: Fountain. Houston, The Menil Collection & Houston Fine Art Press.

1 Comment »

  1. “someone who has significant ideas and is able to express them in an interesting visual manifestation becomes a fundamental definition of what makes good art”

    Perhaps a Venn diagram ought to be made to better illuminate how bad of an idea can be rescued by visual virtuosity and vice versa. That way works falling outside the overlap can be be reconfigured to have one or the other qualities either enhanced to fit, or translated into a more suitable medium. For example, if a curator aspires to play artist by hitting the reader with a pile of pseudo-Deluezian cliche; that curatorial statement could be translated into something more visually interesting and also more stylistically fitting, say a tourist style oil painting, or a TV show.

    Comment by Joseph Reihsen — June 22, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

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