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Andrea Fraser

Speaking of the Social World...

|andrea-fraser-symposium-wo-stehst-du-kollege-hau-1| Andrea Fraser, Symposium „Wo stehst du, Kollege?", HAU 1, Berlin, 2010

It is increasingly difficult for me to imagine that I have much to contribute to panel discussions. This has to do with my deepening sense of alienation from the art field, which may be reaching a terminal phase. The fact is that I haven’t been able to bring myself to read art publications for a number of years now, except a few things by friends. That feels particularly problematic to admit on a panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of a publication with which I’ve had a long and productive relationship. Admitting it here fills me with guilt at neglecting friends and colleagues among its writers and editors, and shame at my irresponsibility and narcissism and the feeling of falling behind. Nevertheless, it seems the best point of departure for my remarks, as the topic of this panel provided an opportunity to reflect on aspects of that alienation and its evolution.

The description of this panel frames the question of “how to align supposedly autonomous aesthetic phenomena with the specific historical, discursive, ideological and economic conditions that shaped their production” – without, the description goes on to say, “neglecting the genuine logic of artistic phenomena”.

My sense of the failure of art practice and perhaps especially art discourse to accomplish such an “alignment” is central to my deepening sense of alienation from the art field. It may also be described as the motivating force behind my work as an “institutional critic”. I ascribed to institutional critique the role of judging “the institution of art against the critical claims of its legitimizing discourses, […] its self-representation as a site of resistance and contestation, and […] its mythologies of radicality and symbolic revolution” [1] The glaring, persistent and seemingly ever- growing misalignment between those legitimizing discourses – above all in their critical claims – and the social conditions of art have appeared to me as profoundly and often painfully contradictory, even fraudulent.

My sense of this “misalignment” reached a crisis point a few years ago. It wasn’t just the emergence of art as an asset class, or the merging of artistic with spectacle and celebrity culture, or the direct link between the expansion of the art market and art institutions and the massive upward transfer of wealth that has impoverished billions and bankrupted public sectors globally. It was the almost total disconnect I found between what art works are under these historical and economic conditions, and what artists, curators, critics and historians say that those art works – especially works they support – do and mean. This disconnect seemed most acute, not in formalist or phenomenological approaches but rather in perspectives that do attempt to link art to social and historical conditions. What I persistently found in such perspectives was an elaboration of formal and iconographic investigations as figures of radical social and even economic critique, while the social and economic conditions of the works themselves, as cultural commodities, were completely ignored or recognized only in the most euphemized ways. The majority of what was said and written about art started to seem to me almost delusional in the grandiosity of its claims for social impact, particularly combined with its disconnect from the reality of art’s social conditions. [2] As I suggested in 2008, the primary site of the barriers that separate the aesthetic and epistemic forms that constitute art’s symbolic systems and the practical and economic relations that constitute its social conditions may not be the physical spaces of art objects, but the discursive spaces of art history and criticism. [3] Many years ago, I turned to Bourdieu for an account of art’s social conditions, and found an account of their “misalignment” with its symbolic systems as well. As Bourdieu asks in the opening pages of “The Rules of Art”:

“What indeed is this discourse which speaks of the social or psychological world as if it did not speak of it; which cannot speak of this world except on condition that it only speak of it as if it did not speak of it, that is, in a form which performs, for the author and the reader, a denegation (in the Freudian sense of Verneinung) of what it expresses?”  [4]_

Among the aims of Bourdieu’s work on cultural fields was to develop an alternative to purely internal and external readings of art: to the formal or phenomenological and social historical methodologies opposed in the language of the panel. Here and elsewhere, however, Bourdieu suggests that the “denial of the social world” in cultural discourse is not just a matter of attending to the “genuine logic” of art or of avoiding the trap of a reductive or schematic social determinism. Rather, he suggests that this negation of the social and its determination is central to art and its discourse and even may be the “genuine logic” of artistic phenomena itself, as well as the condition of its autonomy. In “Distinction”, he describes the aesthetic disposition as an “affirmation of power over a dominated necessity”; the “paradoxical product of negative economic conditioning which, through facility and freedom, engenders distance vis-à-vis necessity” [5]. In “The Field of Cultural Production” and elsewhere, this negation appears as a “bad faith […] denial of the economy”, which, he argues is a correlate to one of the conditions of art as a relatively autonomous field, that is, its capacity to exclude or invert what he calls the dominant principle of hierarchization in the social world, but which might also be called the dominant principle of determination. [6]

Of course, this is one of those aspects of Bourdieu’s work that appears woefully out-of-date. Today, art discourse is obsessed with the social and psychological worlds, especially in their economic aspects – financial and affective. Art discourse no longer speaks of the social and psychological world as if it did not speak of it. It speaks of that world incessantly. And yet, it seems to me, to a very large extent, it speaks of that world so as not to speak of, still again, in forms that perform a negation in a Freudian sense quite specifically. We speak of our interests in social and psychological theory, political theory and economic structures, and in artistic practices that engage these interests as well, or even attempt to engage materially the conditions those theories describe. And yet, it seems to me, those interests – social, psychological, political, economic – generally appear only as what Bourdieu once called “specific, highly sublimated and euphemized interests”, [7] framed as objects of inquiry; of intellectual or artistic investments that are carefully segregated from the very material economic and affective investments we have in what we do. Increasingly, I see art discourse, like art itself, as dominated by a set of strategies that are inseparably social, psychological and artistic or intellectual, and that aim to maintain a steady distance between art’s symbolic systems and it’s material conditions, be these economic in the political or psychological sense, located in a social or corporal body; that serves to isolate the manifest interests of art from the immediate, intimate and consequent interests that motivate participation in the field, organize investments of energy and resources, and that are linked to specific benefits and satisfactions, as well as to the constant specter of loss, privation, frustration, guilt, shame, and their attendant anxiety.

Prominent among the sources of shame in the art field are “the reductive”, “the schematic” and “the merely illustrative”, to borrow terms from the description of the panel – all of which I’m very anxious to avoid in my presentation, so I’ll try to make it as complex as possible. And lurking behind all of those terms for me is “the vulgar”, as in “vulgar materialism” and “vulgar determinism”. Which always makes me think of Groucho Marx. And that reminds me of a joke, which I’ll attribute to The V-Girls, circa 1993. It goes like this: To paraphrase the “Theses on Feuerbach”, philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to quote Marx. I was always struck that Bourdieu, apparently no fan of psychoanalysis, turned to Freud when it came to accounting for literary and artistic fields and especially their discourse. His references to Verneinung in this context seems very precise. Freud describes negation as a mechanism in which “the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness”, even resulting in “full intellectual acceptance”; and yet, repression remains in place because this “intellectual function is separated from the affective process” [8] . Bourdieu’s account of this negation as performed also seems remarkably precise – elsewhere he refers to John L. Austin. In contemporary psychoanalytic parlance, one might say that negations of the social and psychological worlds in art and art discourse are enacted. Freud also described negation as central to the development of judgment, not only of good and bad qualities, but also of whether an image exists in reality. Because what is bad, what is alien, and what is external are “to begin with, identical”, negation is a derivative of expulsion. [9] Thus, one can say that negation performs a splitting off, externalization or projection of some part of the self (or, perhaps, any relatively autonomous field) experienced as bad, alien, external; a distancing, above all, of our affective link with it.

This is how I have come to understand many of the critical strategies and stances in art and art discourse – including those that have developed out of very different conceptions of negation, such as institutional critique. Finally, the divide that I find myself struggling with is not that of the art world versus the social or psychological world, much less of formalist or phenomenological versus social-historical methodologies. Nor is it that of internal versus external readings, realities or causalities, whether the autonomy at stake is that of art or of the self. What concerns me is the divide between what we do and what we say (or don’t say) about what we do. What concerns me is the relationship between what is performed or enacted in art, as well as in art discourse, and how those enactments are symbolized, represented, interpreted and understood, or not, by critics and historians as well as artists, but in art discourse above all. What concerns me is what that relationship itself performs.

All art and all art discourse invariably exists within, produces and reproduces, performs or enacts structures and relationships that are inseparably formal and phenomenological, social, economic, and psychological. The politics of cultural phenomena, from this perspective, lies less in which of these relations are enacted than in which of these relations and our investments in them, we are led to recognize and reflect on, and which we are led to ignore and efface, split off, externalize, or negate. From this perspective, the task of art and art discourse is one of structuring a reflection on those relations that have been split off. The goal of that reflection is not to expose or distance the investments that motivate those enactments, but to experience their affective charge in ways that allow for the reintegration of a dimension of experience that previously had been disowned.


[1]Andrea Fraser, „From the Critique of Institutions to an In-stitution of Critique“, in: Artforum International, September 2005.
[2]Of course, this statement must be qualified extensively. There are very few persuasive generalizations to be made about any aspect of the art field at this point, given the extent of its division into various subfields. Art discourse functions quite differently within the market-dominated field of commercial galleries, art fairs and auctions; within the field of exhibitions and projects in the public sphere or bureaucratic cultural field; within the field of cultural activism that aims to be extra-institutional; and within the academic field. One of the most problematic aspects of art discourse today may be the role it plays in maintaining links between art subfields that are almost completely incommensurable in terms of their economic conditions and political as well as artistic values. For some time my most optimistic scenario for the art field is that it will fragment completely into these subfields. This would challenge many artists whose practices span these subfields, like my own, to make definite choices about where we locate ourselves, socially and economically.
[3]Andrea Fraser, „Procedural Matters“, in: Artforum International, Summer 2008.
[4]Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 1996, p. 3.
[5]The same, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 55–56.
[6]See the same, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed”, and “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods”, in: the same, The Field of Cultural Production, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 50 and pp. 74–76.
[7]The same, Distinction, op. cit., p. 240.
[8]Sigmund Freud, “Negation” (1925), in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX, London: Hogarth Press, 1961, pp. 235–236.
[9]Ibid, p. 237.

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