What is currently regarded as political in art is marked by a broad ranging discourse of critical views on globalization mechanisms, privatization and the precarization of life styles. In addition, for some time now art has shown a lively interest in political activism. Nevertheless, the most powerful and influential alliances between contemporary art and politics are not found with some kind of activist agenda in the camp of leftist politics, but rather more and more in the implementation of neoliberal political ideals as the standard of increasingly privatized art institutions. Late capitalist enterprise structures flow into the institutions' management policies and modes of working, requiring new personal qualifications and skills at the same time. Thus the director of a larger institution must demonstrate the qualities of a manager on the one hand and those of a populist politician on the other. Conversely, the constitution of the subject within the cultural field is a political process, which serves as a role model for the late capitalist enterprise culture. The assumption of precarious social situations and survival strategies such as self-management, permanent creativity, flexible and mobile lifestyles like those practiced, more or less voluntarily, in the art field, has already taken place in the process of the development of the New Economy and is continued in the establishment of company structures and the drafting of philosophies of labor and living in the neoliberal business world.
In this current scenario, which goes hand in hand with the dismantling of the welfare state, a new orientation for emancipatory forms of action in the institutionalized art field appears to be necessary. At the same time, a fundamental question of positioning arises first of all: Is the welfare state worth defending? Or has it indeed obscured the actual forms of ownership in its practiced form by preventing that people live below minimum income and thus introducing the privatization of art institutions at the same time? Immanuel Wallerstein, for example, refers to a leftist rhetoric of revolution which says that everything that does not bring about the collapse of the dominant power system must be rejected. He maintains that a policy of small steps no longer represents a real option and argues in favor of imagining a completely renewed system to replace the obsolete ideas of democracy, which were never actually realized. In his words, democracy is to be equated with egalitarianism, and he calls for a radically egalitarian system. What he sees in the Leninist system is merely an egalitarian rhetoric. Which perspectives result from this scenario? Wallerstein proposes that alliances must be found, but he also recognizes that caution is required with regard to the interests of those who want to maintain the existing power relations. Wallerstein himself does not seem to be very pessimistic about the chances of success for this approach. Rather more skepticism is certainly possible – and yet, his description of the current situation and the idea of how democratic approaches could be structured and guided could be useful for organizing collaborative strategies in the art field.
the 1960s, developments in the fields of art and politics have drifted
increasingly farther apart. For this reason, designing new institutions – both
from the ground up and within the framework of existing institutions – that
bring art and politics together is just as challenging as it is necessary. The
crucial question here, though, is: Who is the new peer group for these
projected institutions? With the loss of social influence on the part of the
bourgeoisie, the art institution has lost its peer group and thus plummeted
into a crisis of legitimization. As a project of the Enlightenment, the art
institution embodied the ideals of the bourgeoisie and served the production
and affirmation of aristocratic values and their ideological roots. In this way
it reinforced the taste and the education of a certain, socially relevant
segment of the population, providing it with a public forum, which in turn
supported its own legitimacy. And those who were not part of this were to at
least receive a portion of education in the art institutions.
The example of the Guggenheim Museum most clearly demonstrates how the institution is conceived and staged by politicians and sponsors as a temple of consumption and how the global expansion of the institution is precisely calculated. It is no secret that art as a location factor played the largest role in the decision for Bilbao as the site for the spectacular Frank O. Gehry building of the Guggenheim Museum. The city that had been the largest industrial city in Spain until the end of the 19th century, had been deteriorating economically since the 1970s. For this reason, the Basque region developed a framework development plan, in which the Guggenheim assumed a central role. The plan worked: millions of tourists stream in every year, the region is economically successful once again, and the containment of unemployment is largely attributed to the museum. This result has set a trend as the "Bilbao Effect" today. Another American mega-institution sets standards for the progressive corporatization of museums, the new MoMA, whose director Glen Lowry has expanded the board and the advisory committee of the museum with prosperous business directors, most of whom have no art-related background at all. At the same time, the curators have lost influence and responsibility by being subordinated to a newly established management level. The spatial expansions mostly benefit the merchandising areas on every floor, the restaurants, cafés and representative lobbies, which are tailored to fundraising events. In this way, the MoMA has consistently internalized the illusory idea of a populist concept of the public sphere and the production of the consumerist subject in the logic of the institution.
a criticism of this form of globalized corporative institutionalism and its
consumer audience is also being formulated: since the mid-nineties the programs
of progressive public art galleries (Kunsthalle), art associations and other
contemporary art institutions frequently mention that new public spheres need
to be "produced", which is a counter-thesis to the old familiar concept
of "reaching out for audiences". What is fundamental to the new
concepts of the more progressive institutions is a radically different
understanding of the public sphere and the structure of public spaces. With the
concurrent trend toward more and more privatization, security, rivalry and
exclusion in public spaces, a homogeneous democratic space, in which the most
diverse interests could be lived and acted out harmoniously alongside one
another, is unimaginable. Instead, the public sphere is considered as a space
structured by diversity, in which different interests existing in parallel have
a conflictual mutual relationship.
As curator for NIFCA (Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art), I have explored the theme of current changes in contemporary art institutions in a series of exhibitions, panel discussions, workshops and meetings. These were based on the aforementioned observation that, parallel to the increasing corporatization especially of museums and larger institutions, which has been taking place since the 1990s, new forms of more flexible institutions have formed in alliance with a critique. Although these new forms of institutions have arisen under very different conditions, contexts and intentions, they are working on the shared idea of devising alternatives to carrying out a populistic program. These new institutions have set themselves the task of not merely producing one exhibition with popular appeal after another, but rather of addressing very different subjects at multiple levels with the most diverse specific offers and producing a diversity of public spheres. Whereas the populistic model of the policy of mass appeal follows the lowest common denominator, the more progressive art institutions seek to create a democratic place of polyvocality with specific events running in parallel, accepting the possibility of conflicts at the same time. I am especially interested in looking more closely at these more progressive models and in assessing the developments of these new possibilities, which frequently arise in a closer cooperation between artists and curators. How are the working conditions of these institutions formulated, how are critical potential and profile established and utilized, and how are the political reactions expressed? Is it possible to take stock of these models already? How is emancipatory work with art institutions formulated today, in which manner does it even exist?
aim of the projects was to discuss and experimentally apply new models of
institutional cooperations – utopian as well as realistic ones – at various
levels and within the framework of various formats such as exhibitions,
research projects, panel discussions, workshops and meetings. The project Opacity. Current Considerations on Art
Institutions and the Economy of Desire represents a platform for an
experimental institutional model, which takes research and analysis as a first
step, followed by more visually oriented processes such as exhibitions,
screenings, or fanzines. As research instruments we used not only traditional methods of accumulating
facts and treating them, but also fiction and secondary strategies like
appropriation. The artists (Kajsa Dahlberg, Danger Museum, Markus Degerman,
Stephan Dillemuth, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Sofie Thorsen) and the participating
institutions (NIFCA in Helsinki, INDEX in Stockholm, UKS in Oslo and the
Secession in Vienna) were equally involved in workshops, an exhibition, panel
discussions, a screening and the production of a fanzine.
The task that remains for progressive institutions is to counter this tendency with emancipatory concepts, to present imaginative and desirous political concepts, and thus to prove that the "politics of pleasure" is not to be equated with the "politics of consumption".
Immanuel Wallerstein, "Demokratie, Kapitalismus und Systemveränderung", in: Demokratie als unvollendeter Prozess, Documenta11_Plattform 1, p. 113-130.
This capitalist enterprise logic is augmented in Scandinavia by the social-democratic idea that every institution is supposed to be useful for the people, which means potentially for every single citizen.
Richard Sennett, Die Kultur des neuen Kapitalismus, Berlin 2005. However, the book evinces the same problem that frequently occurs in Sennett's writing, namely that a suitable analysis of existing conditions tends to follow solution proposals based on hindsight. (Original English title: Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, Yale University Press 2005)
Cf. Andrea Fraser, "A Museum is not a Business. It is Run in a Business-like Fashion", in: Nina Möntmann (Ed.), Art and its Institutions, London 2005.
Chantal Mouffe, for instance, describes this space as an "agonistic public sphere"; see Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London 2000.
Lars Bang Larsen, "Statement on Art and Politics", in: Frieze 87 Nov./Dec. 2004, p. 87.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak", in: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana and Chicago 1998, p. 271.
Tone Hansen works as Research Fellow on this theme at the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo.