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Claire Bishop is a British art critic and art historian, currently a lecturer in art history at the Warwick University and at the curatorial program of the Royal College of Art. Her writings are regularly published by Artforum, October and in Tate Etc.

Bishop’s primary fields of interest are conceptual-, installation-, performance- and video art; she is enquiring their relation to the audience as well as the questions inherent to their presentation/display. Currently, she has been writing a book on the social tendencies in contemporary art throughout the 1990s, tracing back the historical and theoretical context of the phenomenon till the 1920s.

The following text seems to be a phase of this enquiry. In her essay, Bishop discusses collaborative art practice, calling for the elaboration of complex aesthetic criteria instead of the primary ethical stands from which, in her view, this kind of art work has almost exclusively been analyzed up to now. This is what Bishop calls the “ethical turn in art criticism”.

The article met a strong response in the international art scene due both to its polemic tone and the fact that she was attacking a widespread and rarely questioned critical tendency while also naming a number of its main representatives and the artists/artist groups they support (propagate). 1

In the article, Bishop is looking at possible strategies of work in which the artist collaborates with ‘non-artist’ communities. With only a few theoretical considerations and references, the article is mainly based on the introduction of practice she considers as ‘better’, offering her aesthetic analysis in form of case studies.

The core element of the article is a neat distinction between two kinds of collaborative artistic practice: the ‘activist’ one, based on the artists renouncing their authorship for the benefit of a real consensus with the community they are working with, and the one in which the artists keep their full control over the collaborative situation while denying the participants any kind of creative role. In Bishop’s view, the latter strategy is more likely to produce work with a complex aesthetic character, while the first, putting away the aesthetic, fully submits itself to ethical considerations. This way, on the one hand, she blurs the line between artistic and critical practice and, on the other (contradicting to her own initial purposes), does not even attempt, beyond some poorly engaging proposals, to elaborate aesthetic criteria by which to judge strategies described by her as “activist”.

The discrepancy outlined above might be explained by one of her conclusions, i.e. that the problem with the practice renouncing authority is that it does not match the category of the aesthetic. Bishop defines this category after French philosopher Jacques Rancière who built up his theory on Enlightenment foundations: aesthetic is the capacity of thinking contradiction, relying on the tension between the autonomy and the heteronomy of art. Although the act of abdicating authority (whose full realization, in the case of such projects, is at least questionable) does not automatically involve a release or neglect of this tension – since autonomy refers to the artwork and its perception and not to the artist –, Bishop sees no problem in linking the regression of authorship to what she considers as a misconception of the Enlightenment paradigm, still operative to this day.

Nevertheless, Bishop’s case is clear: the activity tending to flatten the hierarchy between the artist and his/her ‘collaborators’ and admittedly lacking aesthetic considerations results in non-(good)-art since it does not produce changes in our perspective on the world, it does not offer us new considerations and eventually it gets lost in the moral maze of goodwill. Still, couldn’t it be so that Bishop takes the ethical approach declared by these artists and their supporters for granted when she claims herself that these works do not have any considerable aesthetic quality? Or, in other words: is it possible to work out aesthetic criteria applicable to such strategies when neither the artists using them nor their propagators are proposing it?

In order to answer, first we need to pose a number of other questions. One of Bishop’s observations is that art criticism, after its ethical turn, confines itself to judge the working process and not the product. But what would this product be, as opposed to the process? Following the art critic, let us bring up the example of the artist group Oda Projesi: would the product of their activity be discernible through the experience of participation in their programs or in the response, documentation and interpretations given and circulated by the art discourse? Can every artistic product be evaluated independently from the context in which they were realized? Could it be that this product is difficult to judge because it is not “our” experience? In other words: who is the audience here? Is it only relevant to speak about aesthetic experience when it can also be lived by the “initiate”? Can those who do not take part in the aesthetic discourse have aesthetic experience? Is it possible that the participants of processes considered “consensual” by Bishop live the basic aesthetic moment of the “free play” even when active participants of the art world do not gain any new insight?

One of the possible answers is that only that can be considered art what takes part in the artistic discourse (“art is what it is for us”) and thus, accordingly, we exclude from the domain of art the practices discussed above. The experience of the “outsiders” is not enough; there must be a line between those who “count” and who do not, even if it is highly problematic.

Before examining this phenomenon let us dive into another group of questions concerning whether these projects are part of “our” discourse and, if so, in what way?

First: is it really about the renunciation of authorship? Do the members of Oda Projesi renounce their creative authority when they offer a space and experiences to a community? Isn’t it so that creative collaboration, in which also the participants can have a say, depends first and foremost on their decisions? What else could explain and justify their presence and activity in that given community if not their being artists? Isn’t that all their projects are signed by them and are incorporated in their art? Isn’t it the artists who assume the responsibility for them, explain them and present them to the art world?

The fact that a given project does not (exclusively) bear the traces of the artist’s hand is a well known phenomenon from Duchamp’s object trouv é s through Sherrie Levine’s photographs up to a number of contemporary non-collaborative projects which are attacking the very “myth” of authorship by symbolically renouncing it.

In this case, in my opinion, it is not that much about the abdication of the authority over the artwork than about challenging the premises of a certain intellectual discourse. With the emergence of post-modern art such criticality was put in the foreground: the negation of the autonomy of specific cultural spheres, the questioning of their alleged frameworks and their implicit, supposedly consensual premises. Just as feminist art practice pointed out how the art discourse automatically assumes both the author and the audience to be male, would it be possible to approach critically another assumption, too: namely, by which we take both the author and the receiver being “initiate”?

Even though the Enlightenment definition of the aesthetic experience cited by Bishop does not indicate it, a certain knowledge and intellectual preparation have always been a prerequisite for the participation in the institution of art whose very existence still relies upon this consensus to this day. That is why we still speak about “high” and “low” culture – the distinction, due to a variety of artistic practice, might have lost some of its rigidity but is still far from being irrelevant. Although it counts as natural when contemporary art embraces products by pop –or mass culture, such practice is always considered with a reference to the high cultural discourse. In despite of all historic efforts by the avant-gardes, art has remained an isolated field with its intellectual – and financial – sluice gates. Is it then possible to approach critically this exclusivity of the discourse, understood as a framework? Is it at all possible to consider the kind of practices discussed above as critical activities?

As soon as we start considering these projects being critical towards the intellectual elitism of the art discourse, their ethical decisions will also be readable from an aesthetic point of view. For, then, the key aspect, as far as the aesthetic goals are concerned, will be to ensure that the participants understand and actively form the situation offered by the project – that is that they become “initiate” themselves and therefore the work will constitute a real alternative to the communicational and representational system of the art world. From this angle, the relevance of such work is not to be found in the “recreation” of a preexisting community, rather than in creating a specific one: a new kind of audience, a new group of receivers of artistic experience.

To be sure, this interpretation comes up against a paradox. These projects will, often already in the moment of their conception but the latest during their interpretation, unavoidably become part of the artistic discourse. The negation of the system, it seems, can only be sustained by the system itself (as is the case of so much critical practice). At first sight the reason of this seems to be material and logistical, since such initiatives find their first and most willing supporters and administrators in the institution of art. But the main reason is rather the fact that only this discourse is able and entitled to define and interpret any kind of activity as art.

At this point, though, we meet some problems concerning this criticality. Bishop is right at blaming the art world, always hungry for novelty, for the ease with which it adopts these projects. This makes it that she only encounters the task of their critical evaluation when they are already ‘within the walls’– even though their critical potential lies in the challenge of the exclusivity of the art discourse. And, as a consequence of the general weakening of criticality, this way countless projects, however unsuccessful they may be in their own terms (by not creating aesthetic experience for, or not communicating with, the audience etc.), will be legitimized ethically as art while the artist finds her/himself in a schizophrenic situation: they have to be relevant simultaneously for the art discourse and their alternative audience, i.e. the community they have created/involved.

We can conclude saying that Bishop’s original proposal is relevant as far as she is blaming the exclusivity of the ethical approach over aesthetic points of view in art criticism. It is necessary to elaborate a complex system of aesthetic categories that would enable the critical evaluation of collaborative artistic practice and, indirectly, point out certain idiosyncrasies of the contemporary art discourse and art institution as well.

Hajnalka Somogyi

4. November 2007.
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