December 29, 2007

On saying: “this is not art”: Reflections on Documenta 12

Filed under: Fine Art System, Political, Documenta12, The Museum, Readymade — Graham Coulter-Smith

Alejandra Riera, detail from a wallpiece at Documenta 12, Museum FridericianumIn another post I referred to the “Documenta 12 effect” which refers to the manner in which the artistic director of Documenta 12, Roger Buergel, attempted a transvaluation of fine art by focusing on work that was visually uninteresting. The pieces exhibited by Alejandra Riera and Ueinzz at Documenta 12 fit into this category. Yet they are of great value because they point to a possible end to the erosion of category “art” initiated by the viral impact of the Duchampian Readymade; due to the fact that they indicate a point at which we can justifiably state “this is not art”.

For Buergel (his co-curator Ruth Noack seems to have been primarily concerned with the historical artefacts in Documenta 12, leaving Buergel most culpable) the visuality of art is not important, what is most imporant is the idea, which in Buergelian terms appears to be defined as that which is politically correct. In terms of political correctness Riera has a lot going for her: she is female, she is Argentinian; it is a little problematic that she lives and works in Paris, but we can classify this in terms of diaspora, which works really well due to her interest in politics.

Obviously an interest in politics should be applauded, but the point I am trying to make here is that being interested in political issues does not make one an artist. The generic title for the various works on exhibit was Enquiry into the/our Outside, which strikes one immediately as somewhat obscure. Riera is given principal billing with the theatre group Ueinzz as collaborators.

Alejandra Riera, wallpiece at Documenta 12, Museum Fridericianum

One of the results of this collaboration consisted of sticking a mass of standardised postcard-sized photographs on a wall. It is possible to seriously question whether this mode of display can be said to constitute a “work of art” even if many of the photographs make a token tribute to formalist abstraction. I draw the viewer’s attention to the tacky plastic wallets into which Riera inserted the photographs. Notice, in particular, the greasy effect created when they catch the light. What we appear to have here is a deliberate undermining of aesthetic pleasure. One gets the impression that the artist and the curator are trying to tell us that there is something intrinsically politically suspect about visual pleasure.

This suspicion is reinforced by Riera’s videos which appear to be deliberately rubbish. You can sample portions of her videos here (VIDEO CLIP 1) and here (VIDEO CLIP 2). This is not just grunge it is grunge rammed down the throat of the spectator as a political insult effectively telling the spectator that he or she shouldn’t be looking for visual pleasure but should be out on the streets battling for the rights of the oppressed. Maybe, but that is not art. What she and Buergel inflicted on the viewer should not be allowed in the context of an art exhibition, especially not given prominence in the main venue which is the Museum Fridericianum.

Even when we read the label that accompanied video clip 2–given the generic title Enquete sur le/notre dehors, 2004-2007 (enquiry into the/our outside)–we were none the wiser, it stated:

What is currently taking place is best observed from within a laboratory; this is where we observe the birth and gestation of new artifices that, barring unforeseen circumstances, will naturally shape the world of tomorrow. We can also search out this current state of affairs — although this is relatively secondary in importance — in the progression of confinement.


2 June 2006: Grenoble, France. The inauguration of the MINATEC European Research Centre devoted to the development of nanotechnologies. This centre aims at promoting the industrial and commercial development of an innovative engineering founded on the manipulation of matter (inert or living) at the atomic level.

One wonders what on earth the “progression of confinement” is, or how anything at the atomic level can be said to be “living”; but perhaps we are dealing with poetry here, there certainly seems to be considerable license being deployed.

Alejandra Riera, video exhibited at Documenta 12, Museum Fridericianum

Using a storyboards of images from video clip 1 we can analyse the degree of the insult inflicted upon the viewer. Notice the way in which the video systematically disobeys basic rules on how to make a good film, what we do not see in the storyboard are the rapid sweeps which again break a fundamental rule of videography. Now, obviously, such rule breaking has been used by professional filmmakers with the intention of producing visual interest via difference; but the intention in Riera’s videos is the opposite, the intention is to produce visual boredom This is Buergel’s Documenta 12 effect writ large. Here we can see the brave new world of art that Buergel imagines: An enormous torrent of deliberately bad art, thousands if not millions of postcard-sized photographs stuck on walls or laid out in endless vitrines. Room after room of crap videos that appear to have been made by letting a camera let run on its own. And all of this enacted in the name of the idea.

But the secret informing the Buergelian idea is that that there actually is no idea. I recall reading somewhere that when asked what Documenta 12 was about Buergel shrugged and told the interviewer to find out for himself. There were no themes informing Documenta 12 to speak of unless you can call “what is bare life” a theme.

Summing up the spirit of … [Documenta 12], the NY art critic Holland Cotter writes in an essay:“There are no instructions, no statements, no polemics, and no signature style. You wouldn’t know you were looking at the work of a single artist unless you asked. Visitors wander into the gallery, scope out the situation and look confused. Most move on fairly quickly; a few settle down to see what - if anything - would happen. That’s the dynamic of Documenta 12 as a whole.” (Saffronart)

We have to understand in more depth the Zen mystery of the Buergelian “no-idea”, and it must lie in the depths of curatorial intuition. Buergel curated Documenta 12 as an artist would create a work of art. More precisely he curated Documenta 12 according to a romantic concept of how an artist creates a work of art, which is to say without reason.

But romantic aesthetics are bankrupt in the context of technoscientific late capitalism. We need to look at things more pragmatically, including art. And from a pragmatic standpoint what is most valuable about the case of Alejandra Riera is that it points to a limit to the Readymade virus, to a limit where we can stand up and say “this is not art”. Yet there is a problem here because it is not simply Buergel who defines Riera as an artist, she is defined as such by the art system, by the institution.

This presents us with a significant problem because the most pragmatic theory of art is George Dickie’s “institutional theory of art” which is very plausible and powerful theory. According to the institutional theory of art, art is defined by art system. This seems exceptionally reasonable when one considers that the institution of art consists of vast international network commercial galleries and contemporary art museums, regionally funded exhibitions of contemporary art such as Documenta and the many biennials, and the art press. This institutional network constitutes a multilayered filtration system whereby one can judge an artist’s rank. It is very difficult for any individual, however well-informed (and nobody is perfectly informed), to compete with the group mind that is the art system.

As in most professions an artists’s rank is determined by their curriculum vitae (resume, biography etc.). Here is Riera’s as supplied by the artist database Artfacts:

2007: Documenta 12, Kassel
Entre fronteras, MARCO Museo de Arte Contemporánea de Vigo, Vigo
2006: Movilities, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, Stuttgart
2005: Be what you want but stay where you are, Witte de With, Rotterdam
2004: How do we want to be governes? (Figure and Ground), Miami Art Central, Miami, FL
2003: Formen der Organisation, Kunstraum der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg
A respeito de SITUAÇÕES REAIS, Paço das Artes, São Paulo
[based upon] TRUE STORIES, Witte de With, Rotterdam
2002: Documenta 11, Documenta, Kassel
2000: Paris pour escale, Musée d´Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris - MAM/ARC, Paris
Dinge, die wir nicht verstehen, Generali Foundation, Vienna

It is not an outstanding biography compared to better known names but we can see how difficult it becomes to say what she showed at Documenta 12 is not art. Here are seven instances in which different curators made the judgement that what Riera produces is art. Obviously I am focusing on Documenta 12, I cannot vouch for her other work because I have not seen it. I may have seen it at Documenta 11 but I cannot remember it.

One thing I can remember about Documenta 11, however, was its emphasis on political art. In contrast to Documenta 12, however, there were numerous instances of political art at Documenta 11 in which the balance between aesthetical and ethical content was exceptionally successful, for example: Multiplicity, Walid Raad (Atlas Group), Fareed Armaly, Chantal Akerman, and the Raqs Media Collective. In contrast I saw no instances of successful political art at Documenta 12. Which is not to say Documenta 11 was perfect, there were a few instances where the political aspect took over from the artistic aspect to the point where there was little if any visual interest.

I remember thinking at the time that the political dimension could almost be defined in terms of non-aesthetic modes of expression such as documentary film, books and symposia. But even if this were the case there is no excuse to let this kind of thing into art exhibitions just because they are political and just because the viral proliferation of the Duchampian Readymade suggests that anything can be art if it is exhibited in an art gallery.

Looking back on Documenta 12 it is almost as if Buergel took the least visually successful political works in Documenta 11 as a paradigm for Documenta 12. The thinking appears to be that if it is visually attractive then it is too “easy” and the audience needs to be subjected to “difficult” political art in order to “educate” it. Which, of course, is baloney.

What I am not saying is that there is anything intrinsically wrong political art; far from it. Political art should be valued because the shift from church and courtly patronage to bourgeois patronage in the modern period opened up the possibility of freedom of speech. This had never been possible previously because the artist was a servant of power. Bourgeois patronage gave the artist freedom and the more artists who use this freedom of political expression the better. But the rider has to be that the artist must create a productive balance between political ideas and visual expression.

The other political issue concerns the way in which the art system has total control over what is and what is not defined as art. In particular one can point to the inordinate power of curators. If there is a point at which the Readymade virus becomes a species of cancer then this is also the point at which the institutional theory of art must be questioned.

The art system is closed system and closed systems tend to evolve towards entropy. Fine art is peculiar amongst cultural forms in that the audience has little, if any, role to play in determining what is or is not accepted as art. This is not the case in other art forms such as literature, film and photography. Literature is a good case in point because it had a Duchamp-like figure in the form of James Joyce. Finnegans Wake is as revolutionary as Duchamp’s Readymade; but whereas the Readymade enjoyed viral success from approximately 1960 onwards, Finnegans Wake did not. The reason appears to be in that the readership would not accept a total dissolution of common sense.

Literature is a democratic medium, it is the first artistic medium to be mass produced. Fine art, in contrast, consists of unique artefacts and limited editions which stand outside a mass ownership. Ownership is confined instead within the art system—the viewer is simply a guest who should be on their best behaviour when allowed to enter into the sanctum.

In the 1980s art criticism had some power, but in the commercially driven 1990s and early 2000s it is the curator who has come to the fore and we have seen the result of the unbridled power afforded to a curator in the fiasco that was Documenta 12.

The time has come to begin thinking about art again from the point of view of the audience, and re-energising the arm of the art system that is art criticism and art theory, an arm that has grown weak as the amount of advertising by galleries in art magazines has grown strong. It is sad to reflect for example that the most influential book to be published on art of the 1990s is the curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) which is jejune in contrast to art writing of the 1980s such as that of Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh and Hal Foster.

But most of all there is a need to take a commonsensical and pragmatic approach to what we, as audiences, are served up as “art” and to combat the spread of visual bombast by means of blogging for example which is potentially an extremely healthy democratising force confronting the exclusive club that is the world of fine art, and the dictatorship of the curator.

Against the background of such comments it is rather sad to read the laudible goals of the Ueinzz theatre group who collaborated with Riera for Documenta 12. Commenting on another of their works they state that their goal is to “find in theater a possibility of … a public voice.”[encontram no teatro uma possibilidade … de voz pública] (Ueinzz). On the occasion of Documenta 12 they not only did not achieve this goal they achieved the opposite–they were sucked into the undemocratic sanctum that is the institution of fine art.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational aesthetics, Documents sur l’art. Dijon: Les presses du reel.


  1. This is an extremely eloquent analysis of what Documenta defines as art, and hence, as an artist. Thank you!

    I remember an Argentine painter who managed to get himself nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics. That was something of a coup, the University of Buenos Aires dons were incensed, and the bloke got loads of media coverage. It was all rubbish, of course, unless you think of it as art in which case anyone interested in art is obliged, by current conceptions, to give it even more media coverage.

    Ultimately, I think that ‘institutional art’ is a reactive tool in the face of the overwhelming success of capitalism. But that doesn’t make it art.

    Comment by E Gomez Quino — June 14, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

  2. I am posting back because I did not fully say what I meant, although I came close.

    The interesting thing about the painter nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics (for his ‘theory of light’…) was that the scientific community found it extremely difficult to debunk someone who came at them using the ‘weaponry’ of institutional art: chiefly, validation from media coverage and popular expectations. Rather than just dismiss him as a crank, they invited him to present his theory at a conference. His ‘theory’ said nothing, proved nothing, provided no scientific insight that would open new doors to new understanding.

    All they achieved was to give him more popular validation, and they gave the impression of being entirely incapable of defending themselves from his use of scientific words in a kind of artistic way: he used them for their resonance rather than their meaning. They did not seem to understand that arguing with him about meaning was quite pointless. He was impervious to meaning. The fact is that the only way to cope with him was to ignore him entirely.

    I believe the same applies to institutional art as you define it.

    It is extremely difficult, indeed pointless, to attempt to analyse anything that bears no allegiance to the tools of analysis, all you achieve is to validate it by taking an interest, albeit a critical interest. In other words, institutional art is self satisfying and self defining. It is impervious to your input and will only correspond with your interest to gain validation from it. It can afford to stand aloof from the constraints that apply to other activities that need to comply with some sort of market force or objective, logical validation: whereas the rest of us are subject to gravity, institutional art levitates in its own space, subject only to its own rules. This state of narcisistic denial does not fail, however, it is self perpetuating. Madness is often the failure of a private religion (and religion is the empire of a univesal madness), but institutional art does not fail, it is highly succesful, and the interesting line of enquiry to pursue is into how institutional art is funded and how it achieves this impervious narcisism, and this affects our understanding of art in the modern world.

    In other words, institutional art gets its funding without being accountable in any way. It is this lack of accountability that renders any attempt to anaylise it objectively pointless. It will suck up your criticism and convert it into a quanta of validation.

    Comment by E Gomez Quino — June 14, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

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