Can I Go Now?

by Dieter Roelstraete

Trying to leave the art world

Exit.jpg

Cerith Wyn Evans, EXIT, 1994

Cerith Wyn Evans, EXIT, 1994

What happened to the anticipated end of the world on 21 December 2012? Many a sign seems to suggest that the world has come to an end, if only the world would take note. But isn’t ‘take note’ exactly what the art world did throughout much of the past year?

Looking back, an eschatological tone informed many of the most inter­esting discursive events and publishing ventures, starting with Andrea Fraser’s contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Her participation consisted of a catalogue essay outlining the reasons why she felt she could no longer participate in such events. She wrote: ‘It is difficult for me to imagine that I have much to contribute to this exhibition […] I have not been looking at art in galleries or museums much for a number of years now, or reading much in art publications. I can draw on my previous years of studying the art world as an “institutional critic” as well as my ongoing work with young artists in academic contexts, but I can’t help but doubt the rele­vance of my increasingly removed perspective for an audience of more actively engaged participants. I can rationalize this remove as stemming from my alienation from the art world and its hypocrisies, which I have made a career out of attempting to expose.’ Fruitlessly, or so it seems. What else but the triumph of those exact hypocrisies does this confession ultimately convey?

These days, even an ambivalent wish to retire from the art world is immediately transformed into an art performance. (On a related note, I would argue that the low point of dOCUMENTA (13) came in the form of a comparable curatorial caprice: Kai Althoff’s letter in which he explains his reasons for not wanting to take part in the exhibition, magically transformed into – you guessed it – the artist’s participation, led to speculation whether he had actually agreed to the letter being put on display or not.) Fraser ‘struggles to find ways to continue to participate’. Hers is not a struggle that another high-profile critic is interested in fighting anymore. In October, the mercurial Dave Hickey loudly announced his retirement from the art world. Not known for the gentility of his criticism, Hickey feels that ‘the art world has turned nasty for some reason and my gentility has come out of the closet’. His time, as he put it, is up. As is Sarah Thornton’s, author of Seven Days in the Art World (2008), who around the same time decided to quit writing about the art market. Finally, two books published in close succession in the second half of 2012 sported titles that best summed up what appears to have been on more than a handful minds: David Joselit’s After Art and Pamela M. Lee’s Forgetting the Art World – that which both Fraser and Hickey, and doubtless others, have been trying to do all along. Can we go now?

Why are so many people rushing for the exits? Has it to do with the alarming realization that you don’t want to find yourself caught in some dismal corner of the art world on the last day on Earth? Dreams of escaping the art world are as old as the art world itself. None of these dramas ever really revolves around wanting to forget about art – the object of disaffection is almost always predicated on the systemic confusion of ‘art’ and ‘art world’. It is part of the definition of the art world, and possibly of the art world’s self-image, that any sane person would want to escape it.

However, the louder the declaration of one’s wish to leave it all behind, the greater our suspicion must be: would anyone seriously interested in ‘forgetting the art world’ really write an art world book about it? Will such a book ever be read by anyone who doesn’t even know what the art world is – that mythical Everyman embodying the blissful state of artistic ignorance so many of us appear to be pining after? (In fairness, this is obviously not what Lee’s book in particular is about, but these are the questions that the title, with its overtones of ‘French theory’ anecdotalism, inevitably invite us to ponder.)

To anyone in the art world who wants to get out I am inclined to say: perhaps you’re in the wrong place. On a more fundamental level, however, the problem with public declarations of one’s longing for ‘leaving art’ – the title, incidentally, of a collection of essays by Suzanne Lacy published in 2010 – is that they necessarily presuppose an antinomy between art and what is invariably referred to as the ‘real world’ (or worse, ‘real life’), and that one is better than the other because it has us believe that it is more real. Anyone who believes that art is not part of the real world – that one can only enter the latter on condition of leaving the former – should be forgiven for wanting to leave art behind, because he or she is clearly wedded to the wrong notion of art, one that is pathologically disconnected from the real world. If, that is, we agree with their presupposition: that this world supposedly ‘out there’, free of all things art, is indeed the real one.

Here one could raise the much more troubling question: what kind of art world do these despairing souls inhabit? I wish them the best of luck with it. Unlike art, that world, like all other worlds, is certain to come to an end some time sooner rather than later.

Dieter Roelstraete

is the newly appointed Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA, where he is currently preparing a survey exhibition of the work of Goshka Macuga. 

frieze magazine

March 2013
Issue 153

First published in Issue 153

March 2013

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