2 / 4 / 2012

Institutionalized art and errant social theory.

Alexander Kosolapov, “The Hero, the Leader, the God”

“Faites comme moi mais ne m’imitez pas.”

(“Do as I do. But don’t imitate me”)

Jacques Lacan



I will have to excuse myself for posting this entry, knowing that it may offend some of its readers. However some attempts to open up a discussion often entail a level of necessary injustice, if not violence


Let us ask ourselves where left or leftist social theory (Marx, Marxism, Frankfurt School, French structuralism, autonomism, Deleuze, Guattari, Zizek, Badiou) and part of “continental” political theory-philosophy (from Hegel to Arendt and Foucault) is increasingly being taught today. If one were to identify its locus, where would that be? Although I lack any official numbers to support my case, I cannot but notice the rising of art theory postgraduate departments where the above literature is being extensively taught during the past 10 years. At the same time, I can also witness the gradual disappearance of the above names in sociology postgraduate departments (not to mention the poor chances for external funding that they suggest…) How important is this institutional shift?


I would be the first one to admit that political philosophy challenges the function of art. It transforms its ends and reconsiders its means. However, the social production of artists, curators and critics through postgraduate programs (rather than through personal or collective initiatives) suggests a certain degree of normalization which manifests itself through various (formal and informal) institutional practices. Applying for funding is one case: somehow the extensive quoting of philosophical literature has become a matter of great importance for the financing of a given project. Producing a text as an artist is another: artists are either held a priori accountable for their works or transfer their theoretical legitimization to the curator. Writing for art is no exception: a specialization is being produced under the aegis of both university departments and art journals/magazines.


You might be expecting the typical leftist critique: how all this ends up being nothing more a business serving the capital blah, blah, blah… And I would not deny endorsing it –especially insofar as the effects produced systematically by this phenomenon uncritically run counter either to the ends pursued or to the content of the works evoked. In many cases, the artworld is an exceptional locus for practicing public choice in its most hypocritical versions (e.g. artists seeking their promotion while evoking “the commons.”) But this is only a minor issue. For if the capital was “served” in a manner that would leave art detached from a semi-bureaucratic savoir-faire that castrates the mere irrationality of its social function (in the words of Frank Zappa, if the musician had only to deal with the ignorant cigar chumping entrepreneur and not with the ex-hippy manager), things would not look so discouraging. However, it seems that the sine qua non lobbying and socializing is not enough for internalizing the social challenges that the function of art can possibly produce. Artists today have to already assume the place of the intellectual that would have written something about them had they managed to produce something significant. But let us not assume that they carry an institutional cop in their head. For they learn to legitimize themselves in the same manner a borrower thinks of himself worthy of the loan he is recieving: because they a priori deserve it, because what they do is a priori important. Look at art school graduates: most of them think they are entitled to an exhibition simply because they managed to pull out a thesis and graduate.


Today’s artist does not differ essentially from the academic: both of them are semi-professionals, their work being replaced by the looks of their cv. Rather than standing with one foot inside and the other outside the society that breeds him/her, the artist accepts to have his function completely internalized by the institutional framework that produces his social identity. You don’t need to become an artist when you already are one! Once again notice how this relates to credit and the phenomenon of financial bubbles: you don’t need to work for that car, you can already have it, as long as people believe that you fit the profile of those who own similar stuff.  Of course not all of this has to do with artists and curators reading Rancière, Badiou and Deleuze. And of course I have met many sincere exceptions. But sincerity does not signify the end of a practice –it rather sadly affirms its predominance.


There is one additional and important consequence, this time regarding philosophy and social theory: the total disconnection of political theory from social sciences that have a crucial impact in society, such as economics. Without assigning to Marx the economic determinism that some schools of thought still ascribe to him, one should not forget that he mastered the economic theory and part of the economic history of his time. The same thing applies for given Marxist or leftist scholars up until the 70’s (cf. Castoriadis). During that time that economics became a highly axiomatized science that few social theorists could follow. However, as a philosophy of economics postgraduate, I can assure you that it is not impossible for people involved in philosophy and political theory to get a good grasp at least of what economics does and how it does it. For how are we to think of a novel social-political theory that is not based on vintage concepts (such as the Marxian labour theory of value) and techniques of analysis, unless we are ready and willing to seriously revise them? I wonder how this is possible when a large part of the audience for Marxian-leftist theory is comprised of artists.


To my eyes, a neat division of labour has been established: on the one hand leftist ideas have been handed out to an audience that cannot seriously assess neither their philosophical nor their theoretical claims (again, there are quite a few sincere artists willing enough to admit it); on the other hand, the dominant economic tradition which is highly responsible for what the left (in general) has been accusing it for, is continuing its theoretical and institutional work undisturbed. The few voices within economics and social theory that differ (and not taught in economic departments) are marginalized by this silent complicity between academic technocrats and artists.


I have personally witnessed the utter (and justified) indifference of conservative economists towards hipsters who talk about the “release of revolutionary desire through art”. I have seen leftist professors rejecting projects simply because they judged that studying the history of recent economic thought amounts to rejecting their holy Marxist categories. However I recall a time when economists still read Adorno and Horkheimer and when philosophers were going through the economic news with a fair amount of ease. Today most social theorists are ignorant about the knowledge that practically governs them. Needless to say, economists don’t read Horkheimer anymore.


A privilege recently reserved for performance artists.

“Artists, Gallerists, Bankers GO FUCK YOURSELVES” poster ofhe Greek “Anti-career” movement.

One Response to Institutionalized art and errant social theory.

  1. Nick, I agree to a certain extent with your analysis, although, when it comes to the relation art <> institution, it leaves out the important development of Institutional Critique (Buren, Haacke, Fraser, Sierra and beyond) that precisely address the problem of embeddedness you refer too.

    As for philosophers keeping “up to date” with any scientific, or even just model-theoretical development, I fully agree with you. To take an example from my own field, I believe that philosophy’s approach to language has still failed to incorporate and comment upon the many advances made in mathematical logic, still attaching to Saussure — a digestive problem that you diagnose in relation to economics. I am certain that this has to do with the educational/institutional organization of the university, whose categories still assume role patterns and models that are not only outdated, but now seem to threaten the institution of the university itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>