Gastvortrag von Melanie Bühler (Amsterdam/New York) am 11.12.19: KRITIK – Institutional Critique in the Age of Networked Capitalism

Institutional Critique is commonly defined as an art practice that questions, comments on, and criticizes the institutions involved in the production, display and commerce of art (e.g. museums, galleries, auction houses, artists‘ studios, the art market, and art criticism). Increasingly, though, it has become hard to define what these institutions specifically constitute as art institutions. Indeed, one may validly question if we can still talk of art as constituting a separate sphere in society. On the one hand, museums have been forced to become more and more attuned to a commercial rationale. On the other, ideas and strategies native to the art sector are quickly swallowed up by a broader visual economy. This development has been intensified and accelerated by the increasingly image-driven culture of social media. Thus, while many art institutions align themselves more and more with profit-oriented thinking, artistic strategies have become influential in a wider social and economic field, their competencies repackaged as cultural capital. Curation has become a lifestyle term, museums become drivers for tourism, art districts foster gentrification, and artists are hailed as Instagram influencers, while being sponsored by luxury brands.

While these developments lead to the question if the art world still needs to be treated as a separate institutional field, one can similarly wonder about the state of critique and its validity and effectiveness as an artistic strategy. In a broader context, institutions of all kinds – ranging from the Catholic church, the European Union, the Presidency of the United States, “the Media” – are in a state of crisis as they are being exposed to an unprecedented amount of public critique whose unparalleled scale and reach is – again – enabled by social media platforms. The critique of institutions, whose ubiquity has established itself in the popular lexicon through terms such as ‘disruption’, ‘draining the swamp’, ‘#metoo’, ‘#timeisup’ etc., has become an effective (and potentially profitable) practice that traverses the political spectrum. In other words, to be critical of institutions and their power is no longer just a practice engaged in by the progressive/activist artistic left, while internet culture – the culture in which the themes, tropes and memes of said criticism foment – becomes increasingly politicized and radical.

CRITIQUE // KRITIK asks what forms of artistic practices we might call Institutional Critique in our current situation, now that the art world is thoroughly embedded in a broader visual economy and “critique” is practiced everywhere. Can (and should) there be a different approach to critique now that major public and private institutions are eroding and under threat? And how would this relate to the Institutional Critique that we know as a specific kind of artistic practice that emerged from the late 1960s onwards? Can the museum, as Andrea Fraser put it in 1995 “be made to function as a site for the production of the critical” and if so, how can “the critical” be articulated in the current expanding field of visual culture? What does it mean to practice critique when the “critical attitude” has been normalized and leveraged in high-profile projects of anti-institutional populism?

Taking artworks by Andrea Fraser, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin in the collection of the Frans Hals Museum as a starting point, this project aims to offer a new reading of the art historical movement of Institutional Critique through a re-contextualization of these works. The project links this recontextualization to artists working today to show how the concerns of these female artists, with their works from the late 80s to the mid 90s, can be understood as an art historical lineage that is of particular urgency for today’s context. The project will result in three exhibitions at the Frans Hals Museum in 2020.

Melanie Bühler is the curator contemporary art at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (NL) since 2018. Prior to this, she worked as an independent curator. Recent exhibitions include Noise! Frans Hals, Otherwise (Frans Hals Museum, 2018), Photography Today: Private Public Relations (Pinakothek der Moderne, 2017), Inflected Objects –an exhibition series at Future Gallery, Berlin; De Hallen Haarlem (both 2016) and Swiss Institute Milan (2015). She is the founder and curator of Lunch Bytes (2010-2015) — a project on digital art and culture for which she collaborated with Art Basel; CCA, Glasgow; ICA, London; and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. a.o. She is the editor of No Internet, No Art (Onomatopee 2015), co-edited The Transhistorical Museum(Valiz, 2018) and her writings have appeared in various exhibition catalogues. She contributed a series of texts on photography and digital culture to Fotomuseum Winterthur’s research platform Still Searchingand has written for Metropolis M and Mousse Magazine.

Bildcredits: Andrea Fraser, Welcome to the Wadsworth, 1991, DVD, 25 mins. Collection: Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (NL)