June 20, 2006

The Dungeon and the Graveyard

"The master discourse which is the common sense of ‘Art’ is in the thrall of an antique, ‘nominalist’ view of language – believing that because there is a singular word, ‘art’, then there must be some singular thing, some ‘essence’, which the word names. History (to say nothing of modern linguistics) is the enemy of this illusion; real history therefore – mutable, heterogeneous, indeterminate – is kept prisoner in its own dungeons while a more coherent imposter (a more plausible narrative) takes public command, and displaces judgments. Our art museums are most often machines for the suppression of history,

substituting for concrete historical locations the fictive backdrops of an autonomous history of art or an unquestioned, and perhaps inexpressible, standard of ‘aesthetic excellence’. Where historically remote work is being displayed, instead of the massive historical work of recovery necessary to re-insert the ‘dead’ signs in the complex moments within which they once resonated with meaning, we are all too frequently offered the ‘scholarship’ of the family tree, the spectacle of the cemetery with its monuments and relics. (1)

The contents of this graveyard is the canon of established ‘masterpieces’; to be admitted to it is to be consigned to perpetual exhumation, to be denied entry is to be condemned to perpetual oblivion. The canon is what gets written about, collected, and taught; it is self-perpetuating, self-justifying, and arbitrary; it is the gold standard against which the values of new aesthetic currencies are measured." (2)

Conceptualist Victor Burgin’s keen observation on the theoretical and art historical positioning of artists and art theories within the “graveyard” of academia provides us an incisive and prescient alert that remains topical since publication of his above quoted essay in 1986. The erection and maintenance of the (modern) art history canon is continually supported and corroborated with curatorial and critical acuity by those with abiding interests. To whit, cozily nestled in artnet.com’s notice about Bard College’s new Hessel wing is a revelation about the structure of their "curatorial studies program" and the further promulgation of the “graveyard” agenda by the emergent MA candidates:

"Bard’s curatorial studies program [founded by Marieluise Hessel, along with her then-husband, Richard B. Black, back in 1990] has long depended on the resource of Hessel’s collection, with candidates for the program’s MA required to draw from it for their "first-year collection show" in order to prove their curatorial chops. The new facility will present three exhibitions a year, rotating works from. holdings of significant pieces by Carl Andre, Janine Antoni, Louise Bourgeois, Anne Chu, Francesco Clemente, Dan Flavin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Thomas Hirschhorn, Isaac Julien, Yayoi Kusama, Robert Mapplethorpe, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Pipilotti Rist, Doris Salcedo, David Salle, Kara Walker, Christopher Wool and others.

The new museum’s inaugural exhibition, "Wrestle," homes in on issues of self and identity in the Hessel collection, via 200+ works by the likes of Robert Gober, Roni Horn, Paul McCarthy, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Rosmarie Trockel. The extravaganza is organized by Bard curatorial studies director Tom Eccles and Trevor Smith of the New Museum, who, presumably, will show the program’s would-be curators how it’s done."

Were it possible to take issue with such a “plausible narrative” by the Center for Curatorial Studies that includes, for example, Janine Antoni, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Thomas Hirschhorn, Raymond Pettibon, Rosemarie Trockel and Kara Walker among the acknowledged “blue chip” artists, one might ask, “How do these lesser artists fit within the trajectory of the (modern) art history canon?” And, more disturbingly, since the curatorial program at Bard requires that its MA candidates must “draw from” their own sanctified collection to “prove their curatorial chops,” does not such incestuous scholarship place unnecessary limits on the scope of the "study" of art history?

1. John Tagg, ‘A Socialist Perspective on Photographic Practice’, in Three Perspectives on Photography, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979, p. 70.
2. Victor Burgin, ‘The End of Art Theory’, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, Humanities Press International, 1986, p. 159.