Summary of Institutional Critique
Is the gallery or museum where art is displayed a neutral space? Or is it compromised by the international art market, or biased due to corporate sponsorship and the businessmen on its board? Artists engaged in Institutional Critique ask these questions, and highlight the controversies, problems and blind spots of the institutions that display the treasures of our civilization.
Reflecting both a general term used for artists critiquing the way that galleries, museums and other institutions are run, and a specific group of Conceptual artists working between the 1960s and 1980s, Institutional Critique is a movement that makes the unacknowledged mechanics of art world funding, curation and acquisition explicit, in the hope that it can be changed.
- Institutional Critique demands that the systems that allow art to be displayed, sold, bought or written about are as politically sound as the artworks themselves. Where an artwork highlights a political struggle, or gives voice to the oppressed, it should not move into a system that perpetuates the status quo or reinforces that oppression.
- In Institutional Critique the art objects themselves draw attention to the institutional apparatus around them, with the audience asked to reflect on the processes of art making as well as the finished product in front of them. They make their viewers think about how and why art is funded, and the often-invisible systems of preference and bias that dictate what work is displayed.
- As a predominantly Conceptual movement, artists engaged in Institutional Critique ask their viewers to imagine alternative institutions and systems of curation. This might be accomplished by the reimagining of an already existing space, by rearranging or displaying objects that change or reveal a museum's curatorial emphasis, or by creating new objects and installations to draw attention to what is or isn't already valued by galleries.
- Calling attention to these systems can cause controversy or individual artworks to be censored. Many artists engaged in Institutional Critique are charged with "biting the hand that feeds", or criticizing the industry that sustains them. But for many of the artists involved, the responsibility to address the inequality and hypocrisy that exists in the art world outweighs any negative effects on their career. Perhaps ironically, many of the artists most critical of the international art market have later achieved success and fame within it, revealing the adaptability of the institutional system and its ability to assimilate critique.
- Institutional Critique continues to be a live, 21st century concern of artists, with many of the same critiques levelled at institutions in the 1960s and 1980s, such as the compromising nature of corporate donations. Investment from arms manufacturers, fossil fuel companies or pharmaceutical corporations in museums have become a particular target for artists and activists in relation to greater public attention to climate change, the global refugee crisis, and the epidemic of opioid addiction in the United States.
Overview of Institutional Critique
In 1968 Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers turned his own home into an art gallery, advertising branded gold bars at inflated prices before trying to sell his museum home for bankruptcy. Whether they were moving works consigned to museum basements to the gallery walls or setting about physically cleaning their floors, Institutional Critique sees artists shaking up gallery practices in provocative ways. The collateral damage was seen in the string of curators and directors, fired in the "movements" wake.
Important Art and Artists of Institutional Critique
This photograph, which the artist called a "photo-souvenir", shows his "wild posters" displayed in public spaces in Paris. Comprised of sheets of paper featuring his iconic stripes, the posters were placed on public buildings and pasted on top of advertisements or billboards. The unauthorized works, viewed by the authorities as akin to vandalism, challenged social and political constraints on artistic expression and made the city itself into an exhibition space. As a result, the work challenged institutional hierarchies and structures for how and where art should be shown, and as art historian Andrea Fraser noted, revealed, "how the perception of the same material, the same sign, can change radically depending on where it is viewed."
One of Buren's main concerns in his practice is the site of his work or the art's 'scene of production' (as he puts it). The placement of his work outside the sanctioned gallery space and the implicit questioning of access to art is highlighted by his unauthorized image making. The unsanctioned use of outside space as a protest at the exclusivity and elitism of the art world has been a consistent motif throughout his career. As Buren's notoriety developed and invitations to present inside galleries and museums increased, he maintained this commitment to the street and its egalitarian promise. His first New York solo show at John Weber, for example, featured an even split between works outside the space of the gallery and inside the conventional display space, with a 'transitional' work between, half-out of the doorway. Documenting often temporary installations of work like Affichages Sauvages preserves the impetus to share conceptual work with the greatest number of people possible.
Buren's own description of how "every place radically imbues (formally, architecturally, sociologically, politically) with its meaning the object (work creation) shown there" became a central tenet of Institutional Critique and influenced other artists, particularly Michael Asher. As Alexander Alberro noted, Asher's "critical interventions" were "triggered by his friend Daniel Buren's method of working in situ, selecting his materials and techniques in response to each new situation, Asher began to use only elements already present at the site of exhibition. Henceforth, his projects started to both reveal and integrate cultural phenomena."
The 1968 political unrest in Europe, which included artists protesting the commercialization of art by occupying the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, prompted Broodthaers, the artist group's spokesman, to create his own "museum." Housed in his apartment, the museum began with his "Department of Eagles - 19th Century Section," where he displayed postcards and slides showing 19th century artworks that all contained images of eagles, along with object labels which stated, "This is not a work of art." He also used labels to identify and number individual rooms as "galleries". Broodthaers opened the exhibition with a lecture outlining the ideas behind the piece, alongside a more formal art historical lecture given by Dr. Johannes Claedders, the director of the modern art museum in Monchengladbach. As the artist said, "This Museum is a fictitious museum. It plays the role of, on the one hand, a political parody of art shows, and, on the other hand, an artistic parody of political events. Which is, in fact, what official museums and institutions...do. With the difference, however, that a work of fiction allows you to capture reality and at the same time what it conceals."
He described his process, "These boxes arrived and I arranged them in quite a special way, precisely as one would arrange a work of art. And I said to myself: 'But basically, this is what a museum is.'" He developed the project for the next four years, creating eleven iterations, including a "Financial Section," where he attempted to sell his museum for "bankruptcy." He created gold bars stamped with eagles, selling them at twice their metal value due to their 'artistic value,' and in 1972 created the "Figures Section," where he included 300 various objects containing eagle imagery, as he said, "It is easily obvious that I wanted to neutralize the use-value of the symbol of the Eagle and reduce it to the degree of zero in order to introduce critical dimensions into the history and use of this symbol."
The work allowed Broodthaers to pose as artist, curator, museum director, donor, and art trustee simultaneously, and was a bold and innovative multi-pronged attack upon artistic institutions. It questioned their financial structure, aesthetic evaluation, and their concepts of aesthetic originality. The work also invited participation and engagement, prefiguring later works of Institutional Critique. Broodthaers' work is considered a pioneering influence upon the development of Conceptual art, but was equally relevant to Institutional Critique in his questioning of the museum, as art historian Thierry de Duve said, "as the seat of an arbitrary, monopolistic art power".
This work features two Plexiglas boxes that included automatic counters where viewers were asked to place color-coded 'yes' or 'no' ballots, to respond to the question, "Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon's Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?". The question referenced then-President Nixon's policy of expanding the tragic and widely protested war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia. Haacke's question prompted museum visitors to question the culpability of the museum in this political issue, as Governor Nelson Rockefeller was on the MOMA board. Displayed in transparent boxes, the results can be seen clearly by viewers over the course of the installation. In the photographic documentation above, the "yes" box on the left contains over twice as many votes as 'no'. The artwork created a context where the public played an active role in its political punch through their participation, effectively collaborating in creating the artwork. As art historian scholar Rosalyn Deutsche wrote, Haacke's work challenges "the prevailing dogma that works of art are self-contained entities."
Included in Information, an exhibit intended to present contemporary artists, Haacke's project pioneered the act of Institutional Critique as a precisely focused and specific challenge to the structure of an art institution and its wide-ranging political connections. The notion that an art organization should consider the political and ethical dimensions of those who support it prefigured similar contemporary conversations, but what is notable here is that an artist chose to raise it explicitly in the work that was created for the institution, rather than alongside. This disrupted the usual model of artist's relationships with institutions, and indicated the personal responsibilities of the viewers in their patronage of the museum.
As he said of the show, "Nelson Rockefeller, the incumbent Governor of New York State, was on the board of MoMA. His brother David was the chairman (also chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank), and their sister-in-law, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, was also a board member. I expected the museum would not particularly care for the question of my MoMA Poll, therefore I didn't reveal its wording in advance. I brought the panel with the question to the museum only the night before the opening. And, sure enough, the next morning, an emissary of David Rockefeller appeared and told John Hightower, the museum director, to take it down. Hightower, to his credit, didn't comply. Decades later, I found David Rockefeller quoting the question of my MoMA Poll in his autobiography and saying that to keep it in the show was one of several things that prompted him to sack Hightower soon thereafter." Acting from social conscience, Haacke became a lightning rod as a number of his subsequent projects were censored, and/or followed with the firing of museum curators or directors.
Haacke's risk-taking nevertheless became widely influential. He taught and influenced Andrea Fraser, who wrote of his work that in it "the largely abstract and invisible forces and relations that traverse particular social spaces can be made visible", and would go on to create her own works of Institutional Critique in the 1980s and 90s.