[-empyre-] Curatorial Studies

Brian Holmes bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
Thu Apr 5 14:19:10 EST 2012

Thanks for both of your contributions, Jim and Jennifer.

It seems to me that the question of whether curating should become a 
discipline is an important one to ask. However, just asking it has 
turned this into a very long post, so please everyone, don't bother 
reading it if you are in a hurry, and feel very free to move on to 
something else!

I am at work these days on a difficult project, which is about the 
influence of the neoliberal economy over what I'm calling "the 
institution of contemporary art." This term is meant to englobe all 
those facets of the expanded art world that has grown up around the 
breakthrough practices of the Sixties (essentially, pop, minimalism, 
conceptual art and performance, but you can extend that list if you 
like). It seems to me that a fully articulated institutional network for 
this kind of art only emerges from the late Seventies and early Eighties 
onward, when the first generations to study under the 
pop-minimal-conceptual-performance artists emerge into a world of 
proliferating museums, publications, biennials and ever-rising market 
prices for strictly contemporary art.

My questions: What have been the effects of this "institution of 
contemporary art" on those of us who, in many different ways depending 
on each one's experience, actually became who we are through our contact 
with it? And what are we becoming today, as the directive power of the 
auction houses and the super-rich grows dramatically?

To bring these questions to a higher degree of intensity I felt drawn, 
for reasons that at first I did not fully understand, to a question once 
asked by Michel Foucault: "At what price can subjects speak the truth 
about themselves?"

This, for Foucault, was the very question of how we are governed in the 
Western societies. In his view this question of the truth mediates 
between two more or less opposing poles. On the one hand there are the 
techniques of the self, which are essentially the practices of 
self-creation. Here the Greek word techne can be understood as very 
close to what we now call art. So you can think of these as arts of the 
self, or arts of existence. At the other, opposing pole are techniques 
of power, which are used to coerce others into doing the will of the 
powerful. So there are also arts of power, arts of domination. It is 
when we have established these two opposing poles, the techniques of 
power and the techniques of the self, that things get really interesting.

Between these two is the process whereby we accept to be governed: our 
"governmentality." When and why do we accept to be governed? When we 
recognize, accept, take up and even perfect certain truths about 
ourselves. Typically this is done through the disciplines of the social 
sciences, which entail taking ourselves as objects which can be 
explored, tested, quantified and finally made into the predicates of 
universal truths. Governmentality, the acceptance of a certain form of 
government, happens when we willfully apply a certain kind of truth to 
our objectified selves. Here you could situate, I think, the notion of a 
discipline, not in the sense that Foucault developed in his famous book 
Discipline and Punish, but in a subtler sense that racognizes the 
autonomy of each person and the ways in which that autonomy is 
integrated to and even embraces a norm, a system. Governmentality is 
soft power, self-discipline, coercion in which you participate.

For Foucault there was a crucial relation between governmentality and 
the social sciences. There are, to be sure, many forms of social 
science, and they change over time, obeying different paradigms. But no 
one will be shocked anymore if I say that the leading paradigm of the 
social sciences, over the last thirty years during which the institution 
of contemporary art has taken form, is neoliberal economics. Indeed, 
Foucault's course at the Sorbonne in 1978-79, one of his most brillliant 
works, is called "The Birth of Biopolitics," and it is a history of 
neoliberalism. I found very interesting a remark he made in this course, 
and to which he did not return at any later time. This is the remark 
that for the liberal thinkers, and ever more powerfully in the 
neoliberal societies, the market is taken as the ultimate function of 
veridiction, or truth-saying. This function of veridiction replaces any 
other jurisdiction or statement of judgment. It is the market, through 
its price mechanism, that speaks the truth about everything in a 
neoliberal society: what it is, what it is good for, how it should be 
produced, to whom it should be attributed, and so on. That can all be 
deduced from the price. This veridiction of the market governs all 
social development, including that of the sciences but also of the arts, 
as we can see around us every day. And it does all this governing 
according to the principles of competition and endless accumulation, 
giving rise to terrible concentrations of power. The worst thing is that 
people believe in it, they make it exist by believing in it, they 
proclaim the necessary truth of the market every day, and they apply it 
to themselves. It is the truth of our time.

Alas, the above is very important to those of us who have become and are 
still becoming who we are through our relation to the institution of 
contemporary art. Because that institution of art has taken shape from 
the Eighties to now: precisely under the governmentality of neoliberalism.

Now, I'm sorry this is a bit long, but at this point I started to ask 
myself if Foucault's question, At what price can subjects speak the 
truth about themselves?, could really be applied to the institution of 
contemporary art in all its social complexity. As a first point in favor 
of the idea that maybe it could be so applied, it seemed to me that 
insofar as artists create artefacts and representations, they do somehow 
objectify themselves. Not always as individuals of course, because more 
and more, there is a kind of collective expression and elaboration going 
on in art; but in any case, there is an object, whatever's left when the 
artists aren't there: those works, those traces, etc. So we have 
objects, self-objectifications, about which the truth could be spoken.

Next there is also a lot of talk and discussion and writing about art. 
Curators do it and I do it myself from time to time: when it is written 
it is called criticism. Criticism has an interesting status. It can go 
in quite different directions. On the one hand, criticism can try to 
state the truth of a work. Think of structuralist criticism, Marxist 
criticism, phenomenological criticism, sometimes even psychoanalytic 
criticism: they all try to say the truth about the work, which they 
usually also conceive as a truth about the self or about society. But 
then on the other hand, in what I think is a much more interesting way, 
criticism can simply assert that this or that art (this or that 
technique of the self) is a good one, it is *worth trying*, as it were. 
As if to say, along those lines we might live better. Maybe I'll try it, 
I'll use my perception in that way, my imagination in that way, my 
gesturality in that way. I'll take up the suggestion of the artist. 
Maybe we can try an experiment together?

Foucault himself would obviously have much preferred the second form of 
criticism, the one that leads to shared experience. Indeed, the late 
Foucault, the author of the Uses of Pleasure, might have very much 
enjoyed what in art education is called the "crit", the spontaneous, 
collective, oral critique of someone's art, which I think is something 
remarkable when it is done well, because it really presupposes no 
authority or truth at all, but rather opens of a field of possibilities 
between people, where any expression or statement is completely 
provisional, completely dependent on and open to the response, and can 
be reversed by the next one who speaks or even makes a gesture. In a 
critique you do have power relations, of course, you have an exercise of 
wills, but in the best of cases these power relations are reversible, 
which for Foucault was the essence of an ethical relation. In my view, 
that's what's great about art: it opens up a space for this thoroughly 
provisional kind of ethical relation. One can also work this way through 
written criticism, one can also do it through curation. One can use it 
not to impose authority but to open up a field of possibility, and it's 
really one of the things that makes life worth living. I would want to 
foster and develop those kinds of relations.

Obviously, you've already grasped that Foucault would not have been 
happy at all with the idea of making anything to do with art into a 
discipline. Indeed, the very word curation, the idea of a cure, he 
wouldn't have liked that at all, it leads to that ultimately monstrous 
thing he called the "care of the self," a kind of obsession, a sort of 
spiritual policing, no no no, bad idea. Of course, a full-fledged 
discipline would be even worse, the curator would then become like a 
doctor, maybe even a psychiatrist and in any case, a warden, and you 
would head toward the situation that Robert Smithson described in his 
great text on "Cultural Confinement," which obviously is not 
super-flattering toward "the curatorial." So this is maybe something to 
avoid, and even a simple word like discipline is something you might 
think twice about before using lightly.

That said, what we see happening today in the institution of 
contemporary art is arguably worse: pure veridiction by the market, 
whether it is at the auction block, or in the box office, or at the gala 
dinner for the collectors and donors, or in the minds of students 
evaluating whether their career as an artist will allow them to pay 
those mega-loans that art students increasingly acquire, to the point 
where the price of "speaking the truth about yourself" gets all too 
literal, a heavy price to pay. Gentrification, another heavy price to 
pay for art. The appropriation of art by management, by interaction 
design, by advertising, arrrggghhh, such heavy prices to pay. This kind 
of unilateral domination of art by the market makes the former 
disciplines seem charming, complex, subtle, you can even get nostalgic 
for them... In my view there has to be another way of speaking about art 
than the market's veridiction, lest it all devolve into that activity 
that the sociologist Olav Velthuis calls "talking prices." I'd say it's 
very urgent to maintain, or perhaps create anew, some spaces where 
different kinds of judgment and critique are possible.

The best thing I've learned from art is how to keep it wild, how not to 
be governed like that. What if we took care of that possibility?

So in the proposal for curatorial studies, my input would be to 
foreground the ethical dimension of critique, the ideal of reversible 
relations of power, the value of the arts of existence, and to conceive 
the technical/administrative aspects of the curatorial studies as subtle 
and necessary weapons in the struggle to keep those spaces open -- and 
indeed, to extend those spaces of expression and critique into the 
multiple domains of social life where we are currently allowing 
ourselves to governed far too much, and in such abysmal ways.

 From this angle I would be really curious about the kinds of things 
that can happen in a financial district. Rendering the power relations 
of finance reversible, or even risible - now that seems to me like a 
real challenge!

all the best, Brian

On 04/04/2012 05:05 PM, Jim Drobnick wrote:
> Hi Folks,
> Perhaps another thread concerning our curatorial practice would be more
> conducive to a dialogue. We have just launched a peer-reviewed
> publication called the Journal of Curatorial Studies that seeks to be a
> forum for critical discussions on curating, exhibitions and display
> culture. The first issue is free to download at
> http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=205/
> Our editorial points out the journal’s general mandate, below, and there
> are several questions listed in the middle paragraph. We might also
> discuss the status of this emerging area of study called curatorial
> studies. Does it constitute a discipline? If not, should it aim to
> become one? What would be the advantages and disadvantages? And if it is
> a discipline, what should its parameters be?
> We look forward to hearing your comments.
> Jim and Jennifer
> __________________
> Journal of Curatorial Studies, 1.1, 2012
> Editorial
> Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, Editors
> Curating, as a field of study, often falls between the cracks of
> disciplinary boundaries. Until recently, it has been left to curators
> themselves to theorize upon their practice and the function of
> exhibitions. The Journal of Curatorial Studies builds upon the
> pioneering contributions of curators to encourage in-depth
> investigations from an array of disciplines. Through the examination of
> current and historical exhibitions, display venues in the art world and
> elsewhere, and the work of individual curators, the journal inquires
> into what constitutes “the curatorial.”
> While curating as a practice of arranging objects remains important, in
> the current context exhibitions involve more complex and unorthodox
> conjunctions of rhetoric and methodology. Cultural analysis,
> collaborative processes, institutional critique, performative
> interventions, networked interactivity – these are some of the
> strategies that are now regularly employed. This journal will explore
> these and other issues, such as: How has the identity and authority of
> the curator shifted in a decentralized artworld? How do exhibitions
> emphasizing experience and interactivity function as forms of research
> and knowledge? Beyond the so-called gatekeeping function, what are the
> new ideological conditions that drive the activity of curating? What
> connections exist between displays of visual art and those found in
> culture at large? To this end, the journal will feature thematic and
> open issues, theoretical explorations, contemporary and historical case
> studies, interviews with curators, artists and theorists, and reviews of
> exhibitions, conferences and books.
> The Journal of Curatorial Studies invites texts from a broad range of
> perspectives on curating and exhibitions. It intends to serve the
> international community of curators, academics whose research engages
> questions of the curatorial, whether stemming from the art world or
> other domains of contemporary culture, as well as the growing number of
> curatorial schools and graduate programs. We welcome a readership that
> encompasses a range of standpoints – scholars in art, art history,
> visual culture, museology and material culture studies, along with
> curators, artists, art critics and cultural theorists.
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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