The Politics and Panache of Artivism

Governmental institutions are guardians of tradition and art is the guardian of innovation. If there’s no friction between institutions and artists, it’s abnormal”. 

Engagement, interdependency or unconditional incorporation in the institutional trap

By Khaled Ramadan

Published in: HIVE

Engagement and interdependency or unconditional incorporation in the institutional trap?

“Governmental institutions are always the guardian of tradition, and art is the guardian of innovation. If there’s no friction between institutions and artists, it’s abnormal”. 

Alexander Melamid (quoted in Heilbrun and Gray, 1993: 248)

In the book “Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism – From Formalism to Beyond” David Carrier emphasizes how visual art often is accompanied by words. Naturally nothing is new about this statement, which refers to the modernist art and its post, with its typical strategy to provoke the shock of the new.

Carrier continues to describe how art critics constantly evaluate contemporary art and how art historians reconstruct the meaning of works from earlier times. The words that accompanied the art of modernism, its post and beyond have specific importance since much of this art has been identified as such only because it is accompanied by a theorizing process as well as institutional commitment and engagement.

A confirmation of this comes by the hands of art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto who back in his 1964 essay “The Art World” wrote the following: “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot describe: an atmosphere of artistic theory, knowledge of the history of art: an art world.” Since the 60s the art world has expanded in all directions, and the art world of today happens to include the artists, the arts institutions, and the audiences.

After Danto established this new term, the art world, Robert J. Yanal stated that it was Danto’s essay that coined the term “Art World” and outlined the first institutional theory of art parallel to institutional criticism.

Institutional critique, a privileged discourse, is best known through the critical artistic practice that developed in the late 60s and early 70s, to flourish again in the 90s with a systematic inquiry by the work of artists like Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson and Hans Haacke.

The appearance of new artistic practices after the 70s with focus on instant processes and on meaningful conceptual manifestos, posed radical challenges to the museum and gallery system. Despite how the arts, backwards and forwards, undoes itself through its own products, the new experimentations led to the relative disappearance of designership, skills and similar artistic traditions, but it did not offer efficient alternatives to the institutional art system or manage to change its role or limit its dominance.

At a time where contemporary art, more than ever before, has become one of the essential components of modern-day society, the conceptualization of artistic practices of the 90s and beyond has managed to trigger a shift in the way art is perceived, produced and promoted. Yet again, the position of art institutions to determine what constitutes artistic importance such as Innovation or Brilliant Art remains regulated by the art institutions themselves.

This is not to say that the arts is identified or exists only inside art institutions. Rather, the institutional structure provides the most visible site for artistic practices. Art institutions have a larger radius of resonance in respect to its function of legitimizing artistic importance, and many outside the institutional network still depend on this dominant system for legitimization.

The actual legitimization process can also be awkward. Back in the mid-1990s Hal Foster underlined how the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights. Foster raised a valid point. Through policies and actions art institutions can affect and influence the production, distribution, and reception of art, and they can indeed have a profound impact on individual artists as they pursue jobs guiding society to think in new ways. Choosing between catering for society and serving personal experimentation, contemporary artists remain unconditionally incorporated in the institutional trap. They are softly directed to interact with the mechanized policy and economy of the art institutions, including the recognized global art events, fairs and biennales.

Back to David Carrier and Arthur Danto, in addition to their accounts on the importance of words in legitimizing the work of art, evidently contemporary art institutions still play a role in recognizing and promoting the arts, and still have the upper hand in coining the mood of the latest artistic developments.

Relational interdependency

Art writer Stephen Wright has asked if art today can occur without artists, without artworks, or without an art-world? The answer is not about yes or no, but about who, how and where.

During the last 10 years and parallel to the activities undertaken by contemporary artists, we witnessed the birth of a new category, which is generating aesthetical content, but not necessarily for aesthetical reasons. The new category is made by artivists or architests – in this connection a hybrid between artist, archivist and activists. The artivist or architest uses his artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression, by any medium necessary. The artivist / architest merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. He knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.

Like artists, artivists / architests are advocates of the collaborative aesthetical project, applying means of communication and interactivities to appeal to people’s senses. In the communal domain artists remain among the few semi-independent providers of public commentary on burning social and political issues, however they are no longer alone in this. Artists are being accompanied by a competing group, the artivists / architests, but unlike artists, artivists / architests mostly operate outside of mainstream institutions and their contribution is still regarded as interloping. Nevertheless, at least the term made its way into academic writing around 2008, with Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre publishing a piece on Chicano/a artivism and the work of Molefi Kete Asante.

Back to the art world and its institutions, which continue to represent a self-promoting mechanism, an established network, and a system economy. The institutional art world remains in the eyes of the general public the most recognized entrepreneur, the competitive public facilitator legitimizing aesthetical experiences and the protector of quality.

The relational interdependency between the artist and the art institutions (the art world) has always been bittersweet and conditional. The predominant principles that influence the behavior of numerous art institutions are related to questions of ethics, pragmatism and political correctness. They cautiously maneuver between the intentions of artists and the aesthetical needs of society.

Artists, on the other hand, seek ways to articulate and circumvent the ambivalent relation. However, although they frequently and criticality challenge the very status and authority of the institutional art system, numerous artists eventually end up tolerating and playing by the institutional rules of engagement.

What constitute the relation between artists and art institutions is not the intentions, the goodwill, or the credibility of the artists, because artists cannot define or decide what is good or bad art, and good art is not whatever artists promise us it is.

If art institutions want to avoid being forced into a straitjacket imposed by the assumptions of artists, they systematically and constantly have to set up new values, in terms that their audiences and funders can appreciate and subscribe to.

Therefore efficacious art institutions are arts led but audience focused. They do not and cannot count only on the number of audiences, but must include qualified works, which provide information, deepen our understanding, and at the same time produce knowledge and new experiences.

The challenge here for cultural institutions is how to combine all this and remain able to generate dynamic relationships between artists, their art, and the audience, particularly in a time where the borderlines that define the relationships are becoming increasingly blurry to a degree of nearly disappearing. Artists, institutions and audiences are practically in a process of role shifting or position exchange. Equally globalized in today’s world, artists and audiences are nourishing on more or less standardized intellectual inventions, they share related social conditions, and the flow of news and information.

At this conjunction the art, the audiences, and the art institutions face a more fluid, challenging environment. They are left to face tough times because art and culture is no longer confined to the elites in most societies and practicing art is no longer the preserve of artists. The audiences, in turn, are unpredictable but more engaged, critical and better informed. They live a complicated life with multiple sources of identity, and they demand more complex and diversified cultural experiences.

Attracting the new critical audiences, dispossessed underground groups like artivists / architests are making good progress outside the institutional realm by simultaneously submitting content to the public sphere as well as to cyber space. The birth of cyber space as a new democratic space has generated a new art system and a whole new class of information aesthetics. Like artists, artivist / architests are using the virtual world as an alternative space, to exist, communicate and interact, posing new competition to the audiences of the traditional art institutions.

With the expansion of the system of aesthetics and the shift in audience behavior, art institutions are facing a new relational role. In contemporary times, the role of art institutions is shifting, not only to form imaginary and utopian realities, but also to present ways of living and models of responsibilities within the existing social reality. Art institutions can bring art to people through its patterns of support and collaboration. They also play a greater role than often recognized in bringing people to art. The significance of art and culture on contemporary social conditions could mean that art and cultural institutions are there to raise awareness of issues that society might otherwise miss, and play a crucial role in shaping societies by building peer to peer support, provide knowledge, experience, and liberal participation.

I would like to end this text with a story from the 30s. In 1936, a committee of experts was established in India to check the conditions of museums in the country. The foremost museological problem was the fact that the vast majority of museum visitors were illiterate people (a non-specialized audience) that went there, not to know or learn, but to wonder. The colloquial Hindustani term for museum was AJAIB-GHAR or the “house of wonder”.

However, art museums were places where history and historic artifacts were preserved. Contemporary art institutions are places where knowledge is produced. They are playing their historic role by providing exhibitions and information. The audiences on the other hand, although growing by number, their valuation, knowledge and admiration of art still needs to be cultivated and more incorporated.

Elena Delgado, curator of Madrid’s Museo de América is in no doubt about the role of contemporary art institutions and how her institution operates, educates, entertains, informs and produces knowledge in real time, or rather, in quick time.

Delgado said:

“The significance of a museum lies not only in its collections, but also in the reflections and insights it is able to trigger around the objects, the knowledge it provides and the multiple visions and interpretations it offers on the heritage in its care (…) As metaphorical “free zones”, museums must strive to take their place at the intersections, in those spaces where individuals and distinct cultural identities can act and interact, transform and be transformed (…) In order to become a space for negotiation, museums must disown those homogenizing and discriminating values which are still very closely connected to their role in legitimizing historic identity (…) One task for cultural and educational institutions should be the development of strategies to help citizens learn to live with conflict, with the other and with difference, by promoting attitudes which lead to the intersection of cultures and of knowledge.”

Cairo, autumn 2013