December 11, 2007

The Documenta 12 Effect

Filed under: Documenta12,The Museum,Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:15 pm

In previous posts I have been very critical of the curator of Documenta 12, Roger Buergel, but in this post I would like to stand back from any sense of personal annoyance and look at Documenta 12 with as much objectivity that I can muster.

Rather than simply observing that Documenta 12 was “bad” and citing some incidences of this badness as I have already done, I would like to conduct a thought experiment and consider the possibility that Documenta 12 was a curatorial masterpiece (which I am sure is the opinion of Roger Buergel).

A great deal of the works in Documenta 12 appeared to be included on the basis of the “anything goes” aesthetic pioneered by Dada and the Duchamp (the Readymade). Apparently, the Readymade virus is spreading to the Third World and Buergel combed through a pile of recent Third World art periodicals to select “new” instances of this kind of avant-gardist material: which from a First World standpoint is not that new at all, but actually generic. And if we are going to take a positive perspective on Buergel’s selections then the only way to justify shabbily constructed works of art is to locate them within the project to bring art into life.

In my book Deconstructing Installation Art I noted that there is a very powerful aesthetic aim evident in the history of modern/postmodern art which I have referred to as “deconstructive art”. This ambition goes back to Duchamp, dada, surrealism, constructivism and the Bauhaus. The aim is to bring art into life and break down the barrier between the viewer and work of art.

It is a very powerful ambition which was realised, in what might be called a “constructive” fashion, by movements such as De Stijl, Russian Constructivism, and the Bauhaus due to the fact that those movements blurred the boundary between art and architecture and design and therefore contributed to the formulation of what we would now refer to as the “modernist” style in architecture and design which had a massive, international social impact.

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, 1972

That social impact has been criticised, in particular it has been suggested that modernist projects for mass housing have been dehumanising due to the fact that the architects were more concerned with the cool or even brutal integrity of their modernist style than with individuality of the inhabitants of their buildings. The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, 1972, has become a graphic symbol of the end of what is portrayed as a somewhat dictatorial modernist utopianism.

But it seems silly to throw the modernist baby out with the dictatorial bath water. Obviously there were mistakes; any project that we undertake as individuals, groups, corporations, governments etc. will involve mistakes; and although modernist architecture had numerous failures in the field of mass housing it has been remarkably successful as a signature style for corporate capitalism. Movements such as De Stijl, constructivism and the Bauhaus were highly successful in pioneering visual representation systems that became integrated with society in a manner comparable to religious art during the Renaissance.

And of course, as soon as one makes this observation one realises how the success of modernist architecture and design and its affiliation with European geometric abstraction may have seemed too mainstream for the nascent American “deconstructive” avant-garde artists in the 1960s. I say American artists because, with European influences, they largely defined the new art of the second half of the 20th century.

By the 1960s modernist architecture and design had become corporate, whereas fine art remained (and remains) informed by an ideology of individualism. One can see why artists in the 1960s turned away from “constructive” modernism towards the “deconstructive” strategies pioneered by Duchamp, dada and surrealism. Another reason is that the deconstructive approach was understood as being socially “transgressive”.

Following the Second World War the liaison between fine art and society evident in De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus was abandoned. Links with architecture and design were jettisoned in favour of a mode of art that posed as socially “transgressive”. As “deconstructive art” evolved into the 1980s and ’90s, however, it became apparent that it was as implicated in the discourse of capitalism as is modernist architecture and design. Which is not especially surprising, from the standpoint of the post-Marxist thinking of Michel Foucault we are all implicated in the network of social power. Capitalism was not designed by a ruling elite, it evolved “naturally”. The “boo” phrase “Darwinian capitalism” with its vulgar reference to the ” survival of the fittest” disguises a deeper, Luhmannian, perspective which we can understand in terms of autopoietic systems. If capitalism is an evolutionary phenomenon one wonders how one can step outside of evolution.

Returning to the social sub-system that is fine art, the deconstructive approach exploded during the 1960s becoming the dominant discourse that still rules today; with the difference that there is widespread understanding in the First World that so-called “transgressive” fine art is fundamentally compromised. The reason for this is due to the fact that such art is supported by the commercial gallery system. This system has become extremely sophisticated in terms of framing virtually anything including faeces (Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961) as a precious object produced by a “genius”. It is possible that Third World versions are less compromised, but situating them in a major International Art exhibition alters that context completely unless the curator was extremely careful to outline the political circumstances and the critical purpose behind such a recontextualisation. There was no attempt on the curator’s part to justify this material as an instance of bringing art into life. Instead the exhibition appeared to be more concerned with framing such work as high culture. This is a great pity because it completely demolishes any intrinsic value that such artefacts may possess in their own native context.

The “Documenta 12” effect therefore simply becomes one more mutation of what one can refer to, metaphorically and reductively, as the Readymade virus.

The Duchampian Readymade and the urinal Fountain, 1917, in particular, spread like a virus throughout the American and European art world during the 1960s. And from a historical standpoint at the turn of the millennium one can note that Duchamp is the most influential artist of the 20th century, and that his urinal echoes through a great deal of “deconstructive” contemporary art from 1955 (Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) through to the present day.

What we witnessed in Documenta 12 was a particular, contemporary, mutation of the Readymade virus that can be described as a total lack of concern for visual appearance (cf. Duchamp’s disdain for “retinal art”). This was exemplified in the form of works on exhibition such as a vitrine filled with postcard-sized snapshots, a drab, bare brown board with nondescript black and white photographs stuck onto it, first year art college graphic design, and great deal of grunge.

It is actually quite easy to dismiss such offerings as “bad”. But one should critically reflect on how one can make aesthetic decisions such as this so quickly and it easily. The reason is intuition. The instance of the power of intuition that comes to my mind most strongly is the generally acknowledged ability of people to make judgements on seeing strangers within the first few seconds. What we refer to vaguely as “taste” is such a mode of intuition, what one might call aesthetic intuition. Aesthetic intuition, however, does not come from some mysterious nowhere, it comes from experience. It is comes from being informed about art, it comes from having seen a great deal of art and having read and thought about it.

Contemporary neurology and psychology is increasingly recognizing the existence of unconscious cognitive processes that enable us to make decisions about the world very quickly. In a recent article “The subconscious mind: Your unsung hero” Kate Douglas reports that Peter Dayan, a theoretical neuroscientist at University College London, and colleagues Nathaniel Daw and Yael Niv have put forward a model of mind comprising four systems, the one that seems closest to what we call “intuition” is what Dayan calls the “habitual controller”. Douglas explains: “Although we consciously learn to do … things, with experience they become second nature and we can do them automatically” (Douglas 2007) [emphasis added].[1]

I would suggest that we consciously learn to appreciate art. Typically, we come into contact with a large variety of instances with a fundamentally positive attitude, we also may or may not attempt to practice art ourselves. What happens during this process is that a great deal of information is assimilated, too much in fact to be constantly referred back to consciousness whenever we need to make a judgement of taste. What happens instead is that unconscious cognitive processes in the form of electrochemical neural networks are “tuned” or programmed to recognize particular “patterns”. The nature of the tuning process is difficult to specify but research into artificial neural network suggests that it is likely to be a form of pattern perception. But the patterns are not simple, their exact nature is not understood even in artificial networks, never mind biological networks in the brain.

So we have the habitual controller that be understood in terms of neural networks that can be programmed with complex experiential templates based on “patterns” (possibly similar to what Immanuel Kant referred to as schemata) another way of understanding “patterns” would be in terms of stochastic analyses (cf. Bayesian inference, Latent Sematic Analysis etc.) that are applied to primarily character-based data in computers. The brain however can apply possibly similar or related processes to human memory: a capability far beyond the capacity of contemporary computers, due to the fact that memory is an impression or trace of the entire gamut of our possible experience, and is not reducible to language or mathematics.

Once the system has been tuned or programmed its response becomes habitual. But this does not mean that it cannot be reprogrammed: it can. Indeed the diligent art lover should reprogram their taste system with the advent of each new generation in order to keep up with the evolutionary processes taking place in the art system.

This process of programming is very important; but so is being able to understand and criticise the habituated judgements that result from such tuning or programming. For example, historians and art theorists tend to classify art into genres. Are such genres simply a figment of an educated imagination? To some extent this is the case; it is certainly misguided to consider such categories as carved in stone. They are better understood in terms of “patterns” that are never ultimately definable in linguistic terms. Art historical categories such as the “isms” that litter the history of modern art are really contingent configurations constructed by institutionalised expert communities (what Michel Foucault would refer to as “disciplines”); and being fundamentally social constructions, they should be subjected to processes of continual critical revision. One of the traditional weaknesses of art history lies in its devotion to a reified taxonomy rather than being concerned with a continual process of finding new patterns and connections.

So returning to the experience of judging much of the work at Documenta 12 as being “bad”, one can admit that the basis of this judgement is down to what Peter Dayan is calling the “habitual controller”: electrochemical neural networks capable of being tuned and retuned. In other words it is be possible to imagine that one would be able to be able to reprogram one’s taste so that it would adjust in line with that of the curators of Documenta 12 Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack.

All one would have to do is to dutifully revere everything that one saw in Documenta 12 and classify it in one’s mind as “art”. It would be preferable to study all the exhibits carefully, preferably taking photographs and video in order to examine these materials when one gets home; which could take quite some time. And, of course, one should diligently absorb the copious reading materials that accompanied the exhibition. As long as one had a positive attitude one would probably be thoroughly “reprogrammed” after this experience and be a card-carrying member of the Documenta 12 belief system. I have no doubt that there are people who did this. Indeed, one can note that some enthusiasts have reverently placed a great deal of material up on Flickr.

The possibility that Documenta 12 could infect people in this way is disturbing. But then why do I say that it is “disturbing”. Am I not simply returning to the rule of my habitual controller? Well yes, but the degree to which my habitual controller can be trusted depends upon how much “good” art I have seen, which in this particular case means other major exhibitions I have attended, books and websites I have looked at etc.

One of the most significant features of Documenta 12 was that the artists chosen had not been filtered by the First World commercial gallery and contemporary art museum system. A lot of the artists in Documenta 12 were new names.

This was an extremely ambitious approach on the part of Roger Buergel which, in the opinion of many informed commentators, failed. There is certainly no necessity that it ought to have failed because there are many very good artists who have not entered into the art system very deeply. But the amount of leg work involved in finding such artists is considerable.

More than that when one is looking at such new art one is always looking through the window of what is institutionally defined as good art. Yet at the same time, one is also aware that this concept of “good” art is a social construction open to transformation. The most supreme skill that curator can have is to see beyond the window of the current norm and recognize a valuable new transformation. Unfortunately, it appears that neither Buergel nor his co-curator wife Ruth Noack possessed this ability.

One could say that Documenta 12 was an ambitious project that simply failed, and that would be perfectly acceptable; apart from the fact of the $25 million the exhibition cost. If Buergel had admitted failure one would be sympathetic, but he insisted that his vision had been perfectly realised.

From a positive point of view the uninspiring visual experience that was Documenta 12 did serve to show that the rest of the art system is relatively efficient at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Curators who make use of the gallery system and judiciously combine artists with a track record with more risky choices tend to formulate more successful exhibitions. And this mixed portfolio approach, in various forms, is used by the Euro-American commercial gallery system.

Take the Venice Biennale a for example, it is a consistently visually stimulating experience. And it succeeds in spite of the fact that around fifty percent of the work on show is actually not very good. One is very happy to be confronted with a great deal of substandard work because this is mitigated by a great deal of good work and some excellent work. Moreover, one would be disappointed if there was not a significant amount of poor work and the reason for this disappointment would be that the exhibition would be too controlled. The openness of the Venice Biennale is one of its most attractive features. It gives many young artists and third world artists a chance, some of the choices fail, but some are very successful.

Certainly, the much more regular turnaround of the Venice Biennale is beginning to look like a much better option than the long drawn out, laboured approach favoured by Documenta. A situation made more prone to failure by the fact that Documenta puts all its eggs in one basket in the form of a principal curator. The Venice Biennale also appoints a principal curator but they are not given the same degree of power due to the national pavilion system.

Documenta 12 is a significant because of the multitude of people who visited it (in spite of poor or indifferent newspaper reviews). The fact that 750,000 people (Eux) made the pilgrimage to Documenta is a tribute less to the curators than to the reputation of this major exhibition (which is now significantly tarnished). The fact that there were 100,000 more visitors than on the occasion of the 2002 Documenta is probably due to the fact that Documenta 11 (curated by Okwui Enwezor) was so incredibly good, thereby raising expectations as to what Documenta 12 had to offer. Many attending Documenta 12 in the light of such reputation would either think that what they were looking at was a representative sample of “good” or even “excellent” art, and would accept it as such, possibly reprogramming their brains accordingly; or would take commonsensical point of view and see a great deal of what was on exhibition as junk.

Consider for a moment what the consequences would be if a sufficient number people programmed their taste to the point were the Documenta 12 effect became viral. This would mean that there would be a massive proliferation of visually uninteresting art which acquires its credibility via obscure pseudo-philosophical “ideas” or via the fact that it can be considered somehow “political”.

The most important impact of a viral proliferation of visually uninteresting art would be on the art market. A cursory examination of auction records ( reveals a that what one might refer to as ” grunge art” actually does not sell very well. Evidentially people who buy art at auctions are exercising common sense. This is a significant observation because a viral proliferation of visually uninspiring art could lead to a collapse of the art market. This would be the end of fine art. And do not think this could not happen because society actually has no real need for fine art. Society already has very powerful forms of mass visual art.

In the Renaissance art served society, it played a fundamental role via the visual representation of Christian ideology. It also served the court, and in the 17th century it began to serve the rising bourgeoisie due to its capacity for visual representation. This fell apart in 1839 with the advent of the daguerreotype. The arrival of technical means of visual representation spelt the end of the crucial role played by painting and sculpture in society. As Marxist art theorists such as Peter Bürger have pointed out, art became “autonomous”. Which is to say art became a social sub-system, a world unto itself. And when this happened, during the course of the second half of the 19th century, a term was coined that expresses this situation very well: l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake); after George Dickie we may also say “art for the sake of the art institution”.

There is no sign of the Documenta 12 effect happening yet, and the reason is because there is a significant amount of interesting art being produced. But we are living in a period in which we have very little rationale for what good art might be. And there is no real reason why this should be the case, apart from the dominance of rather confused interpretations of poststructuralism within the fine art community and uncritical acceptance of the Readymade norm. And if this lack of standards leads to egregious events such as Documenta 12 then this is surely a problem that needs to be addressed.


Douglas, Kate. 2007. The subconscious mind: Your unsung hero. New Scientist, 29 December, pp. 42-4. Online version, click here.

[1] See also Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol 8, p 6; and



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