The idea of originality has seen its credibility erode significantly over the past century. Why this happened is a complex matter. It might have been due to a tendency in cultural politics to diminish the authority of institutions, or perhaps the protracted death of originality is merely a stage in the ever-unfolding dialectics of philosophical thought. Maybe art ran out of frontier on the landscape of new visual ideas, or maybe the Old World notion of originality, of the artist as a supreme author, was simply an untenable myth, bound to be debunked once civilization sifted through enough facts. But whatever the reason, originality isn’t what it used to be.
From Benjamin’s mechanical reproducers to Barthes’s dying authors, the bell tolled often and clearly for the would-be creators of the past century. By the 1980s, artists seemed resigned to live out history as mere interpreters of images, or, as Hal Foster put it, “manipulators of signs rather than makers of objects.” The diminishing value of the original coincided with a growing acceptance of appropriation as a legitimate, even primary, artistic statement; from cubism and Duchampian readymades, it has moved well beyond Rauschenberg’s tires and beds to include, as in the work of Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine, images of the work of other artists…and by extension to ever more removed acts of appropriation.
This phenomenon reached a critical moment for me in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Day for Night was the first Whitney Biennial to have a stated theme. Riffing on Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film of the same name, Iles and Vergne’s biennial was a metaphysical matryushka doll, with realities inside realities, inside realities. At the show I joked to a friend that I thought I was Reena Spaulings and was about to start navigating the Whitney Museum by consulting tattoos on my torso. Iles and Vergne artfully transformed Day for Night from a survey of 100 contemporary artists to a two-person show whose content was the work of 100 contemporary artists. Check that, a REALLY GOOD two-person show, but one that contextualized art to meet its own conceptual needs. I don’t think Dan Colen was waxing philosophical about artifice while spray painting obscenities on his papier mâché boulders, or that Dash Snow was reflecting on Baudrillard’s hyperreallity when he was taking scenester snapshots, and Im pretty sure Daniel Johnston wasn’t allowed out in public without antipsychotic drugs, so it’s hard to imagine him producing work for Day for Night on the curators’ side of the joke.
Of course all these artists were willing accomplices; it’s not like they were forced into the Biennial at gunpoint, and to be fair, Iles and Vergne were assigned the impossible task of selecting individuals for a survey of the schizophrenically chaotic 2006 American art world. So, they selected art that captured what they saw as “the artifice of American Culture in all its complexity.” Inasmuch as the art world is a fluid and obfuscated world, their project was a perfect metaphor for its inscrutability. So brilliant in fact that their curatorship was more interesting than much of the art. Like, say, how Rauschenberg’s combine “Monogram” is more interesting than the Angora goat and rubber tire that comprise it. The difference is that tires don’t have artistic integrity to maintain, and, one hopes, artists do.
Since this revelation, I’ve noticed a growing incidence of curators using artists as content in less responsible ways, often trying to unify a collection of mismatched work with the help of a nonsensical smokescreen of rhetoric. Though curators aren’t holding the artists hostage, the social cachet of being included in high-profile shows seems too seductive to resist. A show last year at P.S.1 curated by Neville Wakefield titled Defamation of Character comes to mind. According to Wakefield’s press release, the show:
draws primarily from work created in the post-punk era by approximately thirty artists, and explores the relationships between face and fame, notoriety, disclosure, and erasure. Some of the artists mine popular culture to produce scathing or defamatory indictments of consumer mores; others take the moral corruptions of public and political acts as their defamed subject; and others practice détournement “using elements of well-known media to create new work with a different or opposing message” to elevate injury and injustice into the realm of high art.
The text does a crafty job of invoking avant-garde and agitprop language to embolden its conceptual premise, but its practical purpose seems to remain vague enough to squeeze artists as unrelated as Hélio Oiticica, Glenn Ligon, Gordon Matta Clark and Nate Lowman into the same room without losing its subversive edge.
Two years ago, I saw a show at the Wattis Institute, at California College of the Arts, called Prophets of Deceit, curated by Magala Ariolla and featuring Mungo Thompson, Tacita Dean, Raymond Pettibon, Christian Jankowski and others. Ariolla’s impenetrable press release reads,
“The works in the exhibition posit a series of scenarios in which retroactive myths and self-fulfilling prophecies are enacted as exercises of ideological juggling. In doing so, they not only point out the symptoms of a widespread phenomenon that embraces the specter of authoritarian irrationalism, but also investigate the role of art within the culture industry.”
I can’t figure out exactly what ideological juggling means here, but it seems, as it did in Wakefield’s show, to be a catchall for whatever the curator needs.
I should pause here and give an aside. I brought up these issues with several colleagues before writing this piece. I received the usual amount of contrarian “that’s been happening forever” response that you get with any abstract assessment of how trends are changing. Like when you say “art is so much more commercial today” and some guy from across the table blurts out something about Andy Warhol. But just to take the temperature of things I looked back at some significant group exhibitions from the past fifty years to get an idea of how the art was conceptually framed. Alfred H. Barr, in his essay for New American Painting, which opened at MoMA in 1959, writes:
“Of the seventeen painters in this exhibition, none speaks for the others any more than he paints for the others. In principle their individualism is as uncompromising as that of the religion of Kierkegaard whom they honour.”
Barr is clearly very willing to act as an ex post facto organizer of an already well-defined movement, rather than as a creator in his own right. Similarly, in the groundbreaking show Anti-Illusion: Procedures / Materials, from 1969, one of the curators, James Monte, states:
“The radical nature of many works in this exhibition depends less on the fact that new materials are being used by the artists than the fact that the acts of conceiving and placing the pieces take precedence over the object qualities of the works.”
While Monte’s contextualizing of the work in Anti-Illusion is intellectual, it is not rhetorical, and it unambiguously delimits the conceptual boundaries of the show. After glancing at literature from several other pre-2000 exhibitions including Douglas Crimp’s Pictures show from 1979, and Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, it became clear that curatorial projects have become murkier and less coherent of late.
If this is the case, one has to wonder at what point the curatorial cart begins to lead the artistic horse. If artworks continue to be pressed into service for their exhibitions’ broader themes, it puts pressure on artists to make what a friend of mine calls “tofu” art; that is, art that takes on the flavor of whatever is around it. I think this is why we see so much art celebrating “disorder” and “discursivity” these days. It’s why we see more work rhetorically grounded in ideas like “fragmentation” and “rupture” and “decay” and “diffusion,” etc., and what Holland Cotter characterized perfectly in a recent New York Times article as “the subversive politics of aestheticized ambiguity.” Such work is often perceived as metaphor for the incoherence of contemporary life, or the fragmentation of contemporary thought, rather than simply being incoherent or fragmented. It brings to mind a quote from an artist I read in Interview magazine, whom I suspect was pandering to curators when describing his own practice: “I like to take American History and then completely ignore it.” Why take it in the first place, then? Why invoke something only to not take responsibility for it? Because, I suspect, that by not saying anything you avail yourself to everything a curator or lazy viewer might want to project onto your work.
Recently, I indulged in the guilty pleasure of reading Sara Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World. For those who haven’t sneaked it into the bathroom under their coat and finished it in one sitting, it’s basically a fly-on-the-wall view of the art world from six different angles. The section titled “The Art Fair,” describes an exchange with the preeminent collectors, Don and Mera Rubell, in which they take umbrage at being considered merely writers of checks. She says that “collector should be an earned category.” The passage reminded me about a recent exhibition, curated by the same Rubells, called Thirty Americans, featuring the work of thirty-one African American artists who were conceptually bound by little more than ethnicity. The Rubells’ catalogue introduction is telling:
“When we set out to conceptualize a new exhibition, we know we will only get the depth and quality we seek if we already have a strong foundation of works by a core group of artists.” I can’t imagine Isabella Stewart Gardner taking such an active role in “conceptualizing exhibitions.”
I fear that as this trend continues artists will become more and more susceptible to becoming instruments of curators’ agendas, which in itself wouldn’t be so bad if the collaborative effort didn’t hurt the work. I don’t really have any problem with anyone declaring himself a conceptual artist as long as they call the act what it is, and are subsequently held accountable for their ideas. But the emergence of the curator as a Meta-artist is making things unintelligible, and the policing of this problem by the art press has been scant. Considering this, it might be better for the sake of clarity to give all recent curatorial program grads (and even a few collectors) honorary Masters in Fine Arts and let them loose in a scrap yard, taking us back to the days of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines—ten years before Roland Barthes not only declared the author dead but also prophetically predicted, in 1967, that the death of the author wouldn’t mean the birth of the reader. He was right, and if legibility and credibility continue to erode, I think readers will stop reading, then stop watching, then stop looking, and walk away.