Hour 13. Institutional Critique.

Here is the thing. Churches are places of worship. There are rules to how to behave in a church. Even people who are not particularly religious tend to follow the social conventions of church when they visit, if only out of respect for the believers. Similarly, we all know that we should be quiet in a library. A person on their phone outside won’t annoy us at all, but someone on their phone in the movie theater might get someone to call the manager. The point of all this is simply that spaces have social meanings. Attached to those meanings are expectations for behavior and also expectations for encounter. I know that the library has books, the movie theater has movies, the church has Jesus, and so on. This is where I go to get those things.


Of course, the conventions and norms that govern these places didn’t come out of nowhere. They evolved over history. There was a time when people used to be buried in churches, like in the floor. The pictures drawn on church walls didn’t just include jesus doing his saving works and cute little cherubs, they also depicted demons torturing people. These are both things that you are not likely to see these days, because church practices have changed. In most of the churches in America, you won’t even find a proper crucifix, because protestants don’t really get down like that.


So, spaces are functional and they also have other social meaning that comes down from history. Great. If this is true, what is the functional meaning of museums?


I want to suggest that the meaning of the art gallery is that it is a space of reflection. Now, this is obvious from the mission statements of the museums that we saw in Hour 2. But my point is that the museum is a space of reflection where almost anything is open to reflection. It is a warehouse in which you have social permission to think dangerously. Other social spaces are simply not constituted in this way, because they do not have such a concentration of works that need a space such as this to exist.


Music needs a speaker if it’s recorded, a band if it is live. Words have books, which can be distributed far and wide. You can indeed see most art mechanically reproduced on your TV screen, but you know that you are dealing with a kind of flat facsimile and there are other dimensions of the art that, if you were there, you could perceive. Like, say, the scale. (I’m telling yall, that Kehinde Wiley Michael Jackson painting is amazing up close.) Art works, even when they are replicated by their creators, can be so singular, they take the form of events all happening in one place at once. Over time then, maybe after the conceptual turn in art, with the Duchamps and the Warhols and all that, the modern and then contemporary art space, became a place where art helped you think through ideas that were not about beauty or the sublime, but rather were about literally anything. But that anythingness of artistic reflection means that you never really know what is going to be happening in a work of art or in your own mind when you enter a museum, and this is, in a word, awesome.


So much of life is predictable. Regular. Formatted. Contemporary art shuffles that up, offers to bring you into a way of thinking that you have not previously known, if only you are willing to reach out and meet the challenge of the work of art itself. This is dope.


This doesn’t mean, however, that the institution of art in which you sit is not also a place that is framed by historical practices that the institution itself has not yet reflected on. The museum is a place with history. This means that it has done things that were commensurate with the prevailing worldviews of the people who run it. So, that’s why we get certain kinds of museum practices that might make sense from a historical perspective, but have a lot of room for reflection from a critical perspective. One type of such reflection is Institutional Critique.


As with most of the ideas that we have talked about, institutional critique is an idea that is expressed in particular art practices. In this case, the critique need not require the creation of art, but rather, the curation and arrangement of art that maybe is already in the museum collection.


For an understanding of institutional critique, we need not go much further than Fred Wilson.


Get some food, post up and chill out with this video.



As you can see, from the million examples in this video, perceived meaning doesn’t just come from the work of art. It’s about the placement of the work in the space next to other art, the description on the placard, the category set up by the title of the exhibition, and the kinds of expectations that we carry into the art institution itself. All of these things are highlighted then decentered in Wilson’s deft institutional critique.


Also, the museum is “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” I love that.




Andrea Fraser.


Hennessy Youngman, obviously.