2. Boundary Problems: Addressing History in the Image
Published: 22.04.2014
in the series Abigail Solomon-Godeau
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In the powerful group exhibition entitled Re-framing History at the Galerie Lelong in NYC, only one of the 21 works on view falls under the rubric of “photography.” But even so, in addition to its seven photographs, fifteen 35mm slides, and a contact sheet, the work includes two videos, a set of 20 matchboxes, and four reproductions of printed matter. I refer here to Susan Meiselas’ mixed-media The Life of an Image: Molotov Man. In fact, within the exhibition it is only Meiselas who would be described as a professional photographer, subspecies photojournalist. The others in the exhibition, Sarah Charlesworth, Juan Manuel Echavarría, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Emily Jacir, Alfredo Jaar, and Krzysztof Wodiczko are better described as artists using photography (as well as video, objects, installation, and text). In some instances, such as Sarah Charlesworth’s April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), even to categorize the three b&w prints as “photographs” is something of a stretch.

Sarah Charlesworth, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), three black and white prints, reproduced same sizes as original newspapers; dimensions variable (installation view), © www.galerielelong.com

These were drawn from her larger series Modern History, consisting of her photographs of newspaper front pages with all the text (except for the masthead) whited out.1Charlesworth died suddenly this past summer and as is so often the case with women artists, there is now—belatedly—a heightened interest in her work, and one may expect a future spate of exhibitions. Her last retrospective was in 1997-1999, organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. What remains in the blank spaces are the news photographs reproduced on the page. 

Her title, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 refers to the days of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades. But on April 19, his captors had released a photo showing Moro holding up that day’s newspaper, proof he was still alive. Depending on the country and individual publication involved, the picture was reproduced in different scale, typically a marker of the editors’ decision as to the story’s importance for their readership. Thus, in a Canadian newspaper, it was a smiling Queen Elizabeth holding her baby grandson that dwarfed the picture of the captive Moro. Charlesworth’s Modern History is something in the nature of a Barthesian semiotic, iconographic, and (implicitly) ideological investigation of the role of the image in the news print media. Thus, she was not especially concerned with the image qua image, whether as photograph or reproduction of a photograph, but rather, the image as part of a complex and highly mediated system. That in some elusive way these works are also graphically beautiful, is difficult to explain, and not necessarily relevant to my arguments here. But one obvious question this series provokes is categorical: is this work “photography?” A positive response means it belongs in the same company as Robert Adams. Or, for that matter, William Henry Fox Talbot and Alfred Stieglitz. And even though Charleworth’s ostensible subject is “the news” and its internal imagery based on editorial or journalistic photography, as works of art these series cannot be slotted into the category of the vernacular. A negative response to the question triggers an even larger constellation of issues—issues that are epistemological, institutional and discursive.

To this question I will return, but as Re-Framing History also demonstrates, contemporary work made even by a bona fide photojournalist can put pressure on or put in question the desire (or nostalgia) for medium specificity. The Life of an Image: Molotov Man takes as its central and structuring element the photograph Susan Meiselas made in 1979 of a young revolutionary in the act of hurling a Molotov cocktail during the final assault on Somoza’s National Guard Headquarters in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Susan Meiselas, Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters: 'Molotov Man', Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16th, 1979 (1979), chromogenic print, 16 x 20 inches (40.6 x 50.8 cm). © Susan Meiselas, www.galerielelong.com

This particular photograph belongs to the category of photographs conventionally termed “iconic,” that is, widely recognizable images that distill, synthesize, and come to symbolically incarnate historical events—in this case, the Nicaraguan revolution. Such (analogue) photographs are photographically akin to the Holy Grail, or better, the Shroud of Turin, insofar as they are often thought to represent some kind of higher truth, even when staged (cf. the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima). Mounted in succession on the gallery wall, The Life of an Image begins with Meiselas’ color print of the young insurgent and a selection of related color slides, and next to these is her b&w contact sheet with her grease pencil marking of the two exposures selected to be printed. The contact sheet depicts the temporal sequence—the before and the after of the act; the preparation, igniting, and tossing of the bottle. Looking at the contact sheet, it seems clear why Meiselas chose the exposure she did; it was, so to speak, “the decisive moment” of the action, the apogee of its drama. But The Life of an Image is doing something larger than demonstrating the photographer’s choice. In the video mounted next to it is an outtake from a feature-length documentary made by Meiselas, Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti in 1991; an excerpt from an interview with the same man, now identified as Pablo Jesus Arauz. Holding his restless child on his lap, he affirms his identity as the Molotov man and his pride at having been a former revolutionary. Next to the video monitor is a grouping of matchboxes featuring his silhouette, or the silhouette of Sandino, both commemorating the twentieth -year anniversary of the revolution. This is succeeded by a series of photographs made by Meiselas between 1982 to 2009, depicting the stenciled version of the Molotov man on walls and other surfaces in Nicaragua, one effaced with black paint, as well as a home-made monument and his image on a T-Shirt. Following those are a tear sheet from a Swedish newspaper, a flyer soliciting funds for the American-backed contras, the cover of a church magazine and a Sandinista poster, all bearing the same motif; and last, another video excerpt, accompanied with only the ambient sound of traffic, displaying Meiselas’ own poster-size blow-up on a wall in Estelí, made in 2004. Two young children pass by, briefly look at it, touch its surface, and move on.

Susan Meiselas, The Life of an Image: Molotov Man (installation view), www.galerielelong.com.

Each of these elements demonstrates (some) of the vicissitudes of the original picture, but also provides at least a glimpse of the individual who took up arms in the cause of the revolution. Much more importantly, Molotov Man literally “re-frames” history in multiple ways. The past cohabits with the present; the history of the Sandinista revolution—now open to retrospective interpretation, the reference to the illegal American war against the Sandinista government (cf. the arming and funding of the contras), the fragility of historical memory—the list is easily enlarged. To do this work, Molotov Man required other media (video, objects, texts), a continued personal stake in Nicaragua’s ongoing history by Meiselas over several decades, and the demonstration that an “iconic” photograph is open to many uses and many meanings. Indexicality does not trump ideology, for despite the textbook semiotic analogy of an (analogue) photograph to a fingerprint, the iconicity of the photographic image makes it both polysemic and context-dependent.

Re-framing history is not a revisionist view of history but a demonstration of how quite different artists take historical events and/or their media representations as a subject of artistic reflection; Charlesworth’s kidnapping and slaying of Alfredo Moro; Gonzales-Torres’ momento mori of  the U.S. weapon Trident II falling into the sea, the bombing of Hiroshima (Wodiczko); a massacre of peasants and the forced displacement of others in rural Colombia (Echavarría); a Mossad assassination of a Palestinian poet in Rome (Jacir); the American president and his staff following the killing of Osama bin Laden on live feed video and the use of garbage can lids in popular protest in Belfast and Chile (both works by Jaar).2Jaar and Wodiczko are the only artists represented by the gallery, and the work in the exhibition was not for sale.  As of today, the exhibition has garnered no press, as often happens with exhibitions considered to be of “political” art. How this characterization is ritualistically invoked in the U.S. deserves a blog of its own, but generally it is employed as a synonym for “tendentious.” Even more problematically, in its disparaging sense, it effaces the fact that the political is not the same as politics, insofar as the former term includes such concepts as social relations, including those of sex, race and class, the politics of representation; in other words, the politics of the signifier as opposed to the signified.

Be that as it may, just as the juxtaposition of Sigmar Polke and Robert Adams in last week’s blog was meant to contrast the modernist aspirations and values of art photography with the hybridized, heterodox, anti-aesthetics of Polke’s Capitalist Realism, so too does Re-framing History provide a point of departure for some broader observations. In this respect, the question of the identity and the place of an entity once unproblematically labeled “photography” is fractured not only by the new technologies of digital imaging (subject of endless discussions), but by current artistic practices themselves. There is some irony here, insofar that at least in the U.S., it was only in the early 1980s that university departments, related teaching positions, consecrated exhibition spaces, museum departments, specialized journals, auction houses, galleries and, not least, an expanding marketplace, were  (more or less) securely established. And then, in a temporal blink of an eye, following fast upon the so-called Pictures Generation, photography was everywhere and everything within contemporary art.3The term originates with Douglas Crimp’s 1979 eponymous exhibition at Artists’ Space in NYC. This exhibition, however, was by no means “photographic,” including as it did drawing and film, but in which all works drew in various ways on mass media representations. Although this overdetermined centrality was already perceptible in conceptual art and feminist-influenced production of the 1970s, within the emporia of the now-globalized art world, photographic imagery, digital or analogue, is taken for granted. What then constitutes or grounds the spaces and discourses of art using photography as a medium specific practice? The existence of nominally medium-specific fairs and exhibitions (e.g. Paris Photo) in which artists like Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall are featured, or conversely, those like Allan Sekula, Robert Mapplethorpe or Juergen Teller, previously positioned in the category “photography” are now assimilated to contemporary art proprement dit, are all indices of the instability if not collapse of boundaries based on the medium and the technologies employed. Here one can better appreciate how Meiselas, a Magnum photographer with a profound allegiance to the ideals of documentary photography, has nevertheless had recourse to a form of construction/assembly in which photography is only one element.4This is also the case in her multi-media project on Kurdistan, including the book version of this ongoing work.

But there are other pressures and determinations operative even on those artistic practices that deploy photography as a self-contained medium. Although this itself begs the question of whether the images are analogue or digital. An examination of the work of Juan Manuel Echavarría is suggestive. In Re-framing History, he is represented by the stunning and deeply moving Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ash) of 2003-04.

Juan Manuel Echavarría, Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ash; 2003), color film with sound, running time: 18:15 minutes (film still).
© Juan Manuel Echavarría, www.galerielelong.com

In this eighteen-minute video, seven individual Colombian peasants (one sees only close-ups of their faces against a white background) sing songs they have composed about massacres and displacement they have experienced, caught between the FARC, the paramilitaries, and the Colombian army.5Bocas de Ceniza was recently shown in the exhibition at the Fondation Cartier entitled America Latina Photographies: 1960-2013. Notwithstanding the exhibition’s title, here as elsewhere, video is included without comment. Unfortunately, it was shown in a small format, in an open space where it was difficult to even hear the soundtrack. As with his earlier La Maria, a video/photography/and text work about the experience of Colombian women taken as hostage by ELN guerillas, the emotional, indeed visceral power of the video, including its subjects’ direct address to the spectator, dwarfs that of mute, discrete photographs. That said, a few streets away from Re-framing History, at the Joseé Bienvenu gallery one could see an exhibition of photographs from Echavarría’s series Silencios (2010-2013). These are large-scale color prints taken in the area of the Montes de Maria showing abandoned or ruined school houses (the blackboard is often the identifying element) which in some cases, have become living spaces for displaced and homeless peasants. Handsome as the pictures are with their bright saturated color, classical composition, invariably frontal, formally elegant, they are metonymic, melancholic and elegiac, but, in a certain sense, this is the problem. “Beautiful” photographs of the terrible or the tragic are integrally and innately contradictory, although they are therefore all the more readily consumable. While I would not want to argue that video or multi-media is inevitably and in all cases a more effective medium for historical/political/critical purposes, it does seem to be the case that even those like Meiselas whose careers were and are made “in photography,” have to reckon with the reification of the medium as a self-sufficient entity. In this sense, one must take into account the tensions that arise between the muteness of a photograph and the political or ethical demands of the subject. And, on an institutional as well as epistemological level, it is an open question as to what will be the future of those spaces, places, and discourses that defined photographic practice as something other and apart from all the other camera-based media, and within which still photography is only one of many—and constantly expanding—options.

4 comment(s)
Nils Plath
Posted 29.04.2014 at 13:45

Your present post made me aware once again how much is at stake when addressing questions of actuality. (My apologies for actually being a bit late with this. Translating took its toll.) In view of an exhibition such as „Re-framing history“, insightfully commented on above, it becomes clear that the illuminated (artistic) works here record and archive temporal moments and let them re-appear in the context of an art space, thus making the representation of history a re-telling of (visual) histories. Just as the news, every exhibition is a production, the result of numerous processes. Like actuality itself: „not a given, but actively produced, shifted, contained, performatively interpreted by many hierachtizing and selective procedures – false or artificial procedures that are always in the service of forces and interests of which their subjects and agents (producers and consumers of actuality – (…) always interpreters) are never sufficiently aware.“ Given what has been said about actuality (or rather 'artifactuality' or 'actuvirtuality,' to use optional phrases coined by the one quoted from the French, to remain nameless here), the „demonstration that an 'iconic' photograph is open to many uses and many meanings“ (your words) will have to be analyzed as a time-bound activity, constantly creating actualities anew by reframing the images on display. (To be unable to see this (anymore) and to not register this as an important task seems a sign of the times. The pervasive lack of reflection upon one's own being and seeing as a product of the contemporary and of an achronistic history can be taken as a all too current expression of the truly deplorable absence of a critical (self-)awarness in view of representations in general. I strongly sympathize with Chuck's points on this, made in his previous comments, as part of his hometown stories.)
In the context of this debate all questions concerning the medium specificity and the always relevant discussions on the determinability of “photography” primarily touch the image and self-conception of the many institutions mentioned („university departments, related teaching positions, consecrated exhibition spaces, museum departments, specialized journals, auction houses, galleries and, not least, an expanding marketplace“). It is them that have granted „photography“ its meaning and importance as an art form not that long ago (as we were thankfully reminded of) – und now use „photography“ in reverse to guarantee their relevance and to safeguard their power in the here and now of the many on-going cultural debates and quarrels. A debate on the use and meaning of „Photography“ is thus always also a contest about the preservation of a status quo. When some express their feeling that photos will suffer the same fate as printed illustrations from the late 19th-century (which enjoy a meritorious rediscovery in some circles, see:
http://www.meltonpriorinstitut.org/pages/contact.html) and see them perish in view of the increased acceleration of moving images in the age of digitalized reproduction a sense of nostalgia also often joins forces with cultural pessimism (a popular sentiment that makes the pictures of Robert Adams and alike so self-pleasingly attractive). And yet, one might (or: must) ask when or if we were actually ever alone with photographic images as such? Didn't the various institutions played make believe with us when proposing the media specificity of photography as an 'unique selling proposition' in the first place?
For many like me photographs, as singular as some of them might have appeared at first glance and continue to do so, photographs never came into view out of context, and just all by themselves as „Photographs.“ More than a few will have learned to view films anew by looking at Cindy Sherman's early photographs. Many will have acquired an understanding for the representations of interiors and exteriors from Jeff Wall. Many must have enjoyed reading in Robert Mapplethorpe's high contrast narratives that sexuality is not black and white. Many cannot stop seeing containers when hiking cross the landscape with Allan Sekula's images in mind. Many must hink of real world celebrities as fugitives from Diane Arbus' books after discovering them in Jürgen Teller's gloss.
In my view at least, photographs have never appeared “as photographs” as such, but were always multifaceted images in the many changing contexts I encountered them once and again. Never just mute, and never speaking for themselves. Seeing them within larger (historical) narratives (or the history of the media) is what provides their valid challenge for me when pondering with the many conflicting modes of representations of actuality (i.e. 'our reality'). Precisely, like underlined in the inviting observations on „Re-framing History,“ Sarah Charlesworths April 19, 20, 21, 1978 und Susan Meiselas’ „The Life of an Image: Molotov Man,“ because the many pictures collected unter der portmanteau word „photography“ give evidence to the sometimes openly propagated and sometimes subtextually transported „concepts as social relations, including those of sex, race and class, the politics of representation.“
There are many illustrating examples that reveal how the media changes photographs undergo and simultaneously represent can tell us much about the aforementioned produced and performatively interpreted actuality or 'artifactuality' of one's of own perceptions. Take the series of guerilla posters by Forkshow Graphics, plastered in 2004 on billboards, highway walls and other highly visible public places in Los Angeles, San Francisco and some European cities ( http://www.politicalgraphics.org/cgi-bin/album.pl?photo=32subvertisements%2F360_PG_22001.jpg ). For this series, “iRaq,” the designers used visuals taken during the Iraq War, among them that of Satar Jabar attached to electrical shocking devices at the Abu Ghraib Prison (http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/medien/bilder-in-geschichte-und-politik/73169/kriegsberichterstattung?type=galerie&show=image&k=12) and images of resistance, and made them look as if they were part of the silhouette figures advertising campaign for Apple's iPod (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3321943.stm). With the striking effect (as one could learn from competent view) that these “images seamlessly blend into the urban landscape and, if not really looked at, can pass undetected. But when they are noticed, it is in the split second between the viewer’s automatic – i.e. distracted – perception of the poster as poster, and the shocked recognition of the identity of the silhouetted figures, that the possibility of reflection rather than visual consumption is enabled.” (I just recently found this fine piece of analysis, from your „Speaking about torture,“ inserted in an essay, „Allegories of Injustice,“ by Elisabeth Weber (UCSB)). Thus, recontextualizing images can bring about what one might call the 'de-automatization of the daily gaze.' Here, this was accomplished by the re-use of repulsive snap shots that through their various utilizations had become highly charged (propaganda) pictures stemming from the same pool of images that Martha Rosler resorted to in order to update her iconic and now highly priced series of collages from the time of the Vietnam War, „Bringing the War Home“ (see: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/martha-rosler-bringing-the-war-home-house-4708993-details.aspx?intObjectID=4708993 and: „Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, New Series“ (2004/2005), http://www.textezurkunst.de/editionen/martha-rosler/).
Or, to name another example for the virtually endless linkage of images, leading to challenging reflexions upon the representations of the acuality of time and its framing; one example that is somehat closer to home (between Berlin and the Bay Area), and includes the shift from the realm of the 'real' to the 'art world': How come that the photographic portrait of a woman born in Argentina – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TamaraBunke1.jpg – turned up, shortly after Germany's unification, as a picture made from oil crayon, pencil, pen on the walls of a white cube in Munich? (See: Michaela Melián: „Tanja“, 1992, http://www.barbaragross.de/artists/17/detail/626; and: https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/past_present_and_future/). What made Tamara Bunke (who spent her childhood in the GDR, joined Che Guevara's guerilla forces during the Bolivian Insurgency, was killed in action 1967, and posthumously enshrined in East-Germany as a heroine, with schools and youth clubs in her name) the subject of an artistic portrait by Michaela Melián? The thoughfully executed reappropriation of the iconic similitude of the self-proclaimed freedom fighter turned state saint displayed at the time an imaginative resistance against the rewriting of history by the self-proclaimed victors in the West after the Wall's collapse and end of East-Germany, noteably not without an ironic wink at the preposterous propaganda of 'actually existing socialism' German-style (and was part of a series of memory pictures created in respect for acts of feminist self-determination, as seen in Bunke's life story like that of others depicted in various works by Melián). Bunke's nome de guerre, Tania, was after her death adopted by Patty Hearst, the American newspaper heiress and kidnap victim who became a member of the self-styled left-wing revolutionary group Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 before being captured and sentenced to prison (and making a reappearance in John Water's films). It was a surveillance camera during a bank-robbery that captured her picture to be stored in the collective memory of the waning days of the counter culture era, and also made the location of the bank branch somewhat of a historic landmark in The City (http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Patty_Hearst_Bankrobber). The Bay Area-based band Camper van Beethoven (with whom Melián cooperated with her Munich-based art school band Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle at the time, see: „Son of Kraut“, 1991, „The Sound of Music“, 1993) payed musical tribute to Hearst with a song. (That was long before Madonna put the guerilla chic on the cover of her album „American Life“ in 2003, viewed by one critic as a reference also to Patty Hearst, see: http://www.spin.com/reviews/madonna-american-life-maverickwarner-bros/ And even longer before the resurrection of the holy Tania in today's incarnation, inpersonated by the Dutch Tanja Nijmeijer, the beautiful face of Colombia's FARC rebels; see: http://cubaninsider.blogspot.de/2012/11/two-guerrilla-fighters-named-tania-and.html and and http://www.gettyimages.de/detail/nachrichtenfoto/screenshot-of-a-video-displayed-on-the-homepage-of-nachrichtenfoto/155679208, http://www.gettyimages.de/detail/nachrichtenfoto/dutch-national-tanja-nijmeijer-member-of-colombias-nachrichtenfoto/156456166) As they chant „Tania“, released on the album „Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart“ (1988), Camper van Beethoven also gave us another addition to the long line of pop songs about photos and girls (as commented on earlier in the Still Searching-blog by François Brunet, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2014/01/2-what-if-god-was-one-of-us-on-portraiture-one): „Oh, my beloved Tania… How I long to see your face / Photographed in fifteen second intervals / in a bank in San Leandro / A polaroid of you, Cinque / With a seven-headed dragon / in a house in Daly City...“ – – All this can make one ask: How do we set the framework in which we perceive photographs? And where do all these photos come from that make for the material with which we erect the frames (of reference) within our world made of images? And were do they lead us?
*
As often stated, today we encounter photographs with a certain nostalgia. A nostalgia towards former views supposedly undistorted or uninformed by the complexities of the texture that envelop the photographs and photography at large in our day and age. A nostalgia towards representational claims that came and went with the rise of photography as the leading medium in the age of mechanical reproduction, and well as towards the many now in some cases almost archaic technologies of production and distribution. The two works highlighted in the comments on „Re-framing History,“ Sarah Charlesworths April 19, 20, 21, 1978 und Susan Meiselas’ „The Life of an Image: Molotov Man,“ can serve as evidence. At the same time they contest for photography to be a very contemporary medium of actuality, for its ability to produce something that can (re-)appear in so many formats and locations. Thus becoming the material expression of a practice of what once was named (and became respected as) institutional critique.

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Nils Plath
Posted 30.04.2014 at 09:05

P.S. Here's one missing reference: „Torture and Representation: The Art of Détournement“, by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in: Speaking about Torture, edited by Julie A. Carlson and Elisabeth Weber, New York; Fordham University Press 2012

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Chuck Mobley
Posted 29.04.2014 at 17:51

Indeed, comrade Abigail, it seems logical (at this stage of the game anyway) that any medium-specific institution must surely be charged with exploring the epistemological question of “photography.” However most medium-specific institutions in the U.S. nonprofit sector are small to midsize organizations largely focused on technical training and professional development. Most have some form of exhibitions programming that includes, at least annually, one exhibition (sometimes more) in which artists pay a fee (or membership dues) to have their work considered for inclusion by a guest juror or jury (but, alas, does not guarantee participation). In light of the abysmal reality of state funding and private philanthropy, it’s easy to understand why many of these nonprofits capitalize on photography as a popular hobby of the layperson (e.g. workshops, etc.) and the fact that many BFAs and MFAs need post-college networking opportunities (e.g. residencies, portfolio reviews, pay-to-play exhibitions). Is it important to state the obvious here and note that these endeavors are income generators? As for educational programs, most (private and public) funding remains at a remedial level and favors those institutions with programs for underserved youth. These programs are often cynically and shamelessly shoved front and center for potential funders (though they are but only part of a whole and not the central mission of the organization) as individual donors might be lured into participating in “fine print” programs and benefit auctions. (Why any youth in America might be underserved educationally or otherwise is never questioned.) Meanwhile, as the upper classes segregate their children into private and “charter” schools and both the childless individual and married couple pay more in taxes (as they do not benefit from tax breaks for dependent children), the U.S. public school system continues to wither on the vine. Given just the economics involved of “keeping the doors open,” there is little wonder why few of these institutions have ever engaged with the academic community to host conferences and/or publish any significant scholarship.

Financial concerns aside, it is not entirely unfair to assume that these medium-specific institutions might bear some of the responsibility for (and even exhibit a sincere interest in) serious exploration of the very idea of medium-specificity and the intellectual work of a philosophy of photography. They are, after all, self-designated as medium-specific for a reason. In addition, these nonprofits presumably operate outside the whims and vagaries of the marketplace, are significantly less burdened by bureaucracy than the museum, and could offer expansive platforms outside the compulsory curriculum of the college classroom for interested art historians and their (for lack of a less awkward or pretentious term) publics.

That said, what excuse does the—larger and well-funded—medium-specific museum department have for not addressing more philosophical issues? And what of the non-medium-specific nonprofit organization and the potential role it could play in fostering dialog? Instead we see public programming, ostensibly driven by development and fundraising concerns clearly geared toward an upper-middle-class target audience, that includes “slow food” cooking classes, nature hikes, and various outings instigated by artistic “social practice” (a darling of development professionals for obvious reasons). (This is to say nothing of social media, where development and PR concerns really come together to “get the numbers up” by engaging various unpaid “content providers” to websites and chasing Facebook “likes” and “shares,” Twitter “re-tweets,” “re-posts” and “cross posts” on Instagram and Tumblr, ad nauseam.) Dialog, such as it is, from both the “executive” and “program” sides rarely rises above a kind of loquacious and chirpy “grant speak” with an emphasis on affectionate allusions to “the community” (apparently an amorphous blob of people with everything in common), “vibrancy” (gentrification’s newest code word), or the especially irksome metaphor of the “arts ecosystem” (as if cultural workers and participants were endangered frogs). “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” comes quickly to mind, as does Leonard Cohen (to paraphrase): it’s as if they’ve given up on conversation and just quote themselves (or their grant applications).

(The so-called nonprofit “private museums” that house personal collections are excepted from this commentary as they exist largely as tax shelters and a way to offset the expense of storing and insuring work until such time as it is put up for auction. Openings on the “governing board” can comprise friends and business associates. Programming often focuses on promoting the work in the collection and is generally of little consequence. “Community involvement” is kept to a minimum. The welcome mat is not readily laid out for the unwashed masses.)

Perhaps, then, it may be more helpful to consider the meaning and role of “the institution” as well as the question of whether the medium-specific institution can even be relied upon to interrogate the classifications and categories that define them and that they propagate. (Hopefully in a way other than the well-worn, albeit entirely relevant and useful, institutional critique ala Enzensberger, Haacke, et al.) For example, the late British anthropologist Mary Douglas’s 1986 book “How Institutions Think” provides a lucid conceptual framework for understanding the individual’s relationship to the institution (essentially a collective of individuals) and how they operate (or “think.”) Though Douglas is seemingly peerless in her quotability, I’ll wrap up my commentary by limiting myself to just two pertinent notions most relevant to this blog post. First, Douglas explains how institutions are built:

“When institutions make classifications for us, we seem to lose some independence that we might conceivably have otherwise had. This thought is one that we have every reason, as individuals, to resist. Living together, we take individual responsibility, and we lay it upon one another. We take responsibility for our deeds, but even more voluntarily for our thoughts. Our social interaction consists very much in telling each other what right thinking is, and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build institutions, squeezing each other’s ideas into a common shape, so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent.”

She goes on to explain how institutions, in turn, inform our thought styles:

“Institutions systematically direct individual memory, and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize. They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardized pitch on standardized issues. Add to all this that they endow themselves with rightness, and send their mutual corroboration cascading through all the levels of our information system. No wonder they easily recruit us into joining their narcissistic self-contemplation. Any problems we try to think about are automatically transformed into their own organizational problems. The solutions they proffer only come from the limited range of their experience. If the institution is one that depends on participation, it will reply to our frantic question: ‘More participation!’ If it is one that depends on authority, it will only reply: ‘More authority!’ Institutions have the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program. For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon our mind.”

In light of this assessment, perhaps the more important questions are: what incentive is there for any medium-specific institution (or even department) to question its own relevance and, as media boundaries continue to blur, can they afford not to?

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Nils Plath
Posted 30.04.2014 at 08:51

Right on, comrade Chuck!

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