Tim Davis, Cornelia Rutgers Livingston, (2003)
Paradoxically, exhibiting artists that rage against the institution within the institution is both non-ironic and particularly vogue. Unlike the institutional critique of the late 1960s and 70s, which had the exceedingly explicit dynamic of the artist versus institution, those roles today have become less clearly defined. Consider Creative Time, the New York based public sculpture non-profit headed by Nato Thompson and Anne Pasternak, which has recently extended its brand to support the occupation of other institutions as an institution itself. Thompson and Pasternak called for the take-over of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Lent Space last December in an open letter posted on occupyartnyc.org, signed also by art world professionals, listing their institutional affiliations beside their names. And how could one forget the sophomoric hullabaloo surrounding Take Artists Space last October, in which artist Georgia Sagri botched an occupation of the Soho nonprofit Artists Space, all the while admitting that powerful commercial galleries such as Gagosian would be a better target for their concerns, though less sympathetic to their efforts than non-profits. Sagri is now included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. How an artist negotiates contextualization as fuck-it-all raucous, while cosmopolitan and strategic enough for institutional recognition remains to be seen.
Institutional critique dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s when both government and private support of American public institutions existed on a different plane than it does today. The NEA’s annual budget peaked in 1992 at $176 million, and thanks to the “culture wars” of that period, is about half of that today considering inflation. Offering both historical and contemporary perspectives coming from the lineage of institutional critique is Spies in the House of Art, recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum. (The exhibition’s press release erroneously states that the show begins with the dawn of artists working with the subject of the museum, which they locate in the 1980s, though that would likely make Belgian institutional critique pioneer Marcel Broodthaers roll in his grave. It also purports to study the “secret lives of museums,” which sounds better as a movie tagline than a curatorial thesis.) Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the more aggressive work of institutional critique greats such as Andrea Fraser with the less full-on work of younger artists such as the British filmmaking duo Nashashibi/Skaer illustrates how thoroughly conversations surrounding institutional critique have become neutralized, which is arguably due to the recent passing of art world power from museums to galleries acting as international chains such as the aforementioned Gagosian.
Thomas Struth, The Restorers at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples, (1988)
For her 1989 video “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” Fraser dons the character of the upper-class museum docent Jane Castleton, who bears a striking semblance to Parker Posey’s yuppie, catalog-shopping, Starbucks-loving character Meg Swan in “Best in Show.” Castleton guides us around the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a running commentary on the obvious class differences of several works...