by Ian Haig
The status of the Avant grade has now been systematized into what Dave Hickey calls the ‘therapeutic institution’ – a self-propagating structure of academics, curators, critics and artists proclaiming arts goodness for the world.
Artists increasingly attempt to function as antibodies of the cultural bloodstream; paying lip service to the progressive attempt to ‘normalise’ and correct the social ‘body’ which has reached a peak in recent years. The more screwed the planet becomes the more the art world engages in the narrative of improvement to counteract and put things back in balance; contemporary art functioning as a kind of parental control to reign in the disobedient child.
Johanna Drucker recently took aim at the notion of artists on a mission of social improvement, stating: ‘The idea that the broken world could be fixed by fine art serving as the moral conscience of the culture and using a combination of intervention and provocation might be as ‘over’ as the tired recycling of formal and conceptual strategies from the inventory of contemporary art.’
From university research clusters on sustainability to curators exploring environmental issues, to artists engaged in identity politics, the idea of contemporary art and social virtue is nothing new but its rise is concurrent with the emergence of the artist PhD in Australia and the need to comply with ethics approval. My own university states: ‘Scholarly research activity has the potential to realise significant research and scientific gains, and to contribute enormously to human good’. It would seem contemporary art has slowly transformed from a cultural industry to a wellness industry.
With artists, curators, researchers, and institutions working away busily like worker drones in the name of goodness and ‘healthy art’, - why is it expected that contemporary art behaves in this manner when other modes of cultural production from movies to music are not expected to function in a therapeutic mode?
No doubt all this goodness in contemporary art is primarily about the perception of art having cultural value and worth which is clearly tied to political, funding and commercial agendas.
Historically we have moved from the cliché of the irrational, mad and obsessive artist to the new cliché of the contemporary artist who is well-balanced, responsible, articulate and rational. I am reminded by this every time I encounter art works of social virtue – what is this institutionally approved, curator validated and audience accepted work actually doing ? and what is at stake ? apart from producing a feedback loop of ‘goodness’ and a circle of worthiness between institution, curator, artist and the audience.
Artists taking on board ‘big issues’ and themes of social virtue in their work disturbingly functions as a kind of legitimization and validation of those practices; You are a serious and important artist because you are exploring serious and important themes. The world is in crisis and who you gonna call: the artists ?
The art gallery after all functions like a hospital, the contemporary well lit clean white washed walls, the hushed silence, the silent, sterile, hygienic interiors, with their air of austerity. The modernist white cube studios of art schools are the teaching wards of the therapeutic institution. The aim of the art school; to produce, well balanced, healthy artists who will go onto making a healthy contribution to the art world and society.
With scheduled studio visits, clipboard in hand the staff identifies and diagnoses the problem and suggests a way to improve, before moving on to the next art school patient. It is called ‘practice’ after all, which like the general practitioner the artist and lecturer alike are invested in a therapeutic role with the mission of repair and correction.
What we really need however is art that is bad for you, that is wrong in its thinking, less Bob Geldof’s ‘feed the world’ and more Lux Interior of the Cramps. As Mike Kelley stated the only social function of art is ‘to fuck things up’ ‘to fuck things up for the pure pleasure of fucking them up’ where art’s currency is ‘purposeful purposelessness’.
What is needed is art that doesn’t look like art. I don’t want a didactic panel to explain the work and I certainly don’t need to see any more socially engaged practice of art that is all about raising peoples consciousness, or attempting to highlight the injustices of the world. This territory is well and truly covered. I want to take the conversation somewhere else.
FitzGerald, K. (2010) Volume: Writings on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture, Princeton University Press. p.164
Drucker, J. (2014) After After, The White Review