De kunstenaar als Robin Hood / The artist as Robin Hood

‘Dear Chris Dercon. Thanks for the Knack interview! (1)

Now that’s what you call interviewing – and you profit from it by being stirred by pithy statements. A bit too pithy perhaps. I believe that the competition model you are proposing – with the visual arts repairing the inflicted damage – would bring further escalation of the destructive civil war raging among the image-based disciplines. All those parties just out to prove themselves. And this is in itself enough to make them feel good. "Regaining competence", "getting rid of those visual intelligence backlogs", soon becomes a very self-centred affair. I feel that visual creativity should reject out of hand the notion of a specially appointed disciplinary reserve. As I see it, self-organization here means ploughing artistic paths straight through such reserves. It’s no longer the question of whether a domain is recognizable that concerns us, but the artistic impact of such paths.’

This is my answer: ‘Dear Ole Bouman. For artists like Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, John Knight or even David Hammons the museum and its public were and are still something to conquer and to change. For a much younger generation of artists, curators and critics alike, the museum is just one of the many places where art can be shown. Its public is taken for granted.

We often tend to forget that this development is only possible because those who practise ‘new ways of making art’ have other capital available to them, other than the capital of the museum, the gallery or the collector. The generosity of this new capital has created, especially in Holland, a new kind of institutionalization. Within those, so to speak, new institutions, conventional values of the museum or the gallery, like authenticity and criticality, return mainly as properties of the site – the choice of a particular neighbourhood, building or other architectural infrastructure – engaged by the artist.

Such displacements are easily marketable – comparisons immediately suggest themselves with the worlds of fashion, design and of course architecture – as well as relatively controllable by and through social and political bodies. Moreover, the object of contestation remains, the institution of autonomous art and its thousands of objects or fragments of objects. This fact makes ‘new practioners’ – who are often heard publicly stating that one needs ‘to connect’ – Robin Hoods in the eyes of many, not least of those who are unaware of the efforts of, say, the artists mentioned above.
There is little new about new ways of practising art, in the sense of denying the significance of established institutions, for the museum of (modern) art got born precisely when art was no longer possible.(2)

And as Hal Foster has pointed out, most of the basic assumptions of the old productionist model as well as of the legitimation of the avant-garde persist.(3)
What is really new is that art recently has begun to look for a global style and discursive form. Furthermore, it is now generally agreed that so-called new art practices, such as for instance ‘hyper public art’ – interventions, observations, info aesthetics, etc. in the urban realm – are thought to offer a ‘relief’ which the autonomous art object can not.

As a result, visual art is slowly but steadily vanishing into an expanded field of culture and of other artistic disciplines as well. The linguistic and visual complexity and competence of the art object can only be diluted by such an ‘enthusiastic cultural anthropology of modernity’.(4)

It should then come as no surprise that unquestionably progressive art theoreticians such as Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss are alarmed by this undesirable situation.(5)

The troubles with the new flexibility, unrestricted curiosity and apparent selflessness which characterizes so much recent contemporary art are indeed manifold. Not only does the question of value judgement become much less important than ever before, there is also the naive belief that everything good will find its own place. And add to these the fact that many art practioners aspire to give their work the status of field work, drawing from the start on the basic principles of sociology and anthropology, and we will end up in the realm of knowledge which hitherto had been the province of the social sciences.(6)

There is nothing basically wrong with such rivalry, if only there is some evaluation at work. Instead, though, we are confronted with an endless archive of highly unverifiable observations and theories which hopefully ‘might find their own place’. But things go really wrong when the practice stays unnoticed or is only accessible for a select audience. Will this lead to a situation where visual art will no longer be able to shape its own cultural space, thereby invoking not only a pseudology of social sciences but a poor imitation of other art disciplines as well? Is that what we want to achieve?

Of course, it is absolutely true that artists like Arno van der Mark, Jan van Grunsven, Hans van Houwelingen, Jeanne van Heeswijk and Hermann Pitz have used ‘new ways of making art’, to make truly innovative and invaluable critical works. But I do remain sceptical when artists turn their backs on what Thierry de Duve has described as an aesthetic history of art institutions. This not only entails constant comparison and evaluation, but also and primarily the faculty of judging. This right to cast one’s vote is not just one of the basic assumptions of our democracies, but of our museums as well. (7)

All those who practice ‘new ways of making art’, for instance outside the museum, must allow for situations whereby many people should be able to put themselves in a position in which they can say: this is a significant part, move or step in our culture. That responsibility must repeatedly be given back to the average viewer, which can never mean just a client, a given community or a select audience.(8)

So my call – how idealistic this may sound – is a call to reintroduce the right and the capacity to assess – which all cultural producers should nurture and underwrite. What we need then is in the first place a renewal of the idea of the publicity of art and only in the second place of public art.

  • 1. Jan Braet, ‘Chris Dercon, een modernist in hart en nieren’, in: KNACK, 19-8-1998.
  • 2. Thierry de Duve, in: Stefaan Decostere, Chris Dercon, John Wyver, ‘The New Museum’, in: Mediamatic, vol. 3#4, zomer/summer 1989.
  • 3. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’, in: Global Visions. Towards a new internationalism in the visual arts, London (Kala Press) 1994.
  • 4. Bart Verschaffel, ‘Kunst en universiteit: warm en koud?’, in: Beleidsbevraging Beeldende Kunst, Hasselt (Provinciaal Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten, 1997; Rudi Laermans, ‘Complexiteit als opgave’, in: Boekmancahier, nr. 30, 1996.
  • 5. Benjamin H.D. Buchlok, ‘Sculpture Projects in Munster’, Artforum, september 1997; Rosalind Krauss, ‘Gibt es eine Krise der Avantgarde, Frau Krauss?’, Der Tagesspiegel, 13-12-1997.
  • 6. Ernst van Alphen, Artists as Observing Scientists and Artists as Critical Observers, in: Chambres Séparées. Over hedendaagse kunst en macht, Gent (Rijksuniversiteit) 1999.
  • 7. Gianni Vattimo, ‘Ort möglicher Welten’, Lettre international, nr. 11, herfst/autumn, 1997.
  • 8. David Lister, ‘We’re not as dumb as they like to think we are’, The Independent, 6-3-1999.

Van noodzaak tot verbeelding. Italiaans design en de paradox van het eigentijdse project / From necessity to imagery. Italian design and the paradox project