In art, there are no rules. French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a wooden stool and called it readymade art; photographer Andres Serrano submerged a crucifix in a basin of his own urine; performance artist Chris Burden asked his friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle in the middle of a gallery. The art world remembers the renegades and dissidents. But even within its own realm, art is singularly self-aware.
Instead of getting angry, artists get even. Instead of lamenting society’s shortcomings, artists brazenly confront those responsible. Out of this heterodox mindset came the movement of institutional critique, a response to the institutions and industries that control art.
Think of it this way: How many times have you snidely thought, “I could have done that,” while browsing a modern art exhibition? True, you or any toddler could splatter paint on a canvas or pull Burden’s trigger, but the point is you didn’t because you didn’t think of it first. Further, whatever comparable artworks you may have created in your lifetime weren’t legitimized by the physical spaces of the gallery nor by the institutions of museums themselves. And in the end, what makes art art is the aesthetic, cultural and institutional space it occupies. A jar of piss is worthless in Serrano’s basement but worth thousands in a museum because certain powerful people deemed it so.
The inherent role of politics in art has long been debated. The way I see it, while not always overtly propagandistic, every piece of art is a demonstration of power — whether on the part of the artist, on an institutional level or in the way it is publicly interpreted. Through institutional critique, artists attempted to flip this narrative. Fighting back against the art institution, which had come to be perceived as a space of “cultural confinement,” they sought to vilify the principles and power structures behind the distribution of art and ideas.
Contemporary artist Hans Haacke tried to display documentation of the business dealings between one of New York City’s biggest slum landlords with wealthy art officials in an exhibition that was abruptly canceled for artistic impropriety by the Guggenheim’s director.
In what I regard as one of the most wantonly empowering acts of feminism despite the controversy it inspired, performance artist Andrea Fraser distributed several copies of a DVD documenting her sexual encounter with an art collector who had paid her a significant sum of money not for sex but to participate in her artwork. Her performance was more than a sex tape — it critiqued the power structures of the art world which, Fraser argued, are already exploitative and resemble prostitution.
Art did what it always does — accentuate injustices, propose alternatives and push for a better future — and it worked. However radical their projects may have seemed, these renegade artists set out to fix the art world by calling out its faults through their practices. The critiques they made were consequently absorbed by art institutions and lauded by the very power structures they once denounced. Nearly 40 years after the inception of such works, Fraser wrote in an essay in Artforum that “the practices now associated with ‘institutional critique’ have for many come to seem, well, institutionalized.”
But why stop with the relatively microcosmic art world? My hope is that other rebels, marginalized groups and free thinkers will follow suit by pushing their respective sectors to improve their conditions. The practice of institutional critique as a tool for self-examination and enhancement is extremely valuable and applicable to all areas of broader society.
As with all social and artistic movements, the iconoclasts arise from the margins. We decry the shortcomings of the institutions we live under — education equality, gun control, misogyny, racism — but through art, we know that the very critiques of these grievances themselves can be more than a peripheral chorus of dissenting voices: They can become parts of the institution and integrated into our culture. There may very well come a time when, just as Haacke and Fraser were acquiesced into the institution they ridiculed, the student activists of Parkland, Fla., and the women of Time’s Up will reconcile with a greater institution that presently undermines them.
From artists, we can learn to question everything, to never take anything at face value, to be our own internal watchdogs, to fearlessly challenge the institutions we unwittingly live under, to force them to work for us as they should. Taking advantage of the lawlessness and freedoms of the art world, artists are forcing us to confront how we can do better and paving paths toward better futures. It’s up to our bureaucrats, leaders and politicians to follow their lead.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.