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in catalogue "Before Everything", CA2M (Centro de Arte Dos de MAyo), MAdrid, 2010
* Written specifically for this publication, this text on the notion of convention is a pastiche of Ludwig
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, a recurrent reference in the branch of analytic
philosophy that studies convention. It is founded on an attempt to define the possibilities of discourse
on a subject.
1.- Art is the totality of that which is nothing other than art.
1.1.- This definition, stated in the negative, implies that art may, in principle, include that which is not
approved or recognized by other fields engaged in producing forms or thoughts.
1.2.- Art benefits from a certain state of exception.
1.21.- It operates under a system of suspension of certain legal, economic and even aesthetic
imperatives which apply to most other activities.
1.22.- This suspension, which is accepted to a greater or lesser degree - and, indeed, acceptable to a
greater or lesser degree - does not rid art of all responsibility ; it creates new responsibilities.
2.- In contemporary art, "conventional" is a negative, often pejorative term. That which is
conventional is artistically weak and vulgar and, hence, merits rejection.
2.1.- Convention is an arbitrary pact, limited in time and space, one that implies the existence of a
2.11.- Having progressively and painfully emancipated itself during the Renaissance from the
confinement of manufacture and manual work on demand (the servile arts) to attain the spiritual and
subjective grace of the liberal arts,(1) the visual arts have ceaselessly concealed their shameful
beginnings by reaffirming insubordination to any regulating authority. They abhor tradition,
academicism, standardization. This spirit of contestation reached its peak with the notion of the avant-
garde, whose still unfolding visual dynamics are founded upon originality, innovation and the
unprecedented. That fantasy still exists today in the art milieu as well as in the popular imagination.
2.12.- All convention implies prior obligations, rules or methods and therefore anticipates the terms of
all transaction and communication between social actors, in order to avoid the accidental. However,
art censures any anticipation, rejects any conformity to standards, and indeed aims to create
accidents and deviations in the normal course of events. Art is the space occupied by the violation of
established policies of observing and feeling.
2.13.- Convention is a consensual instrument of control that is opposed to natural chaos. But art must
remain free of control.
2.14.- To be effective, convention must be adopted by the greatest number of people, while art
operates under a logic of differentiation and implacable marginality. No work may or should constitute
a generic model of artistic practice.
2.2.- In analytic philosophy, the two factors that exemplify the concept of convention are language
and money : two modes of arbitrary transaction that require a currency (words, money), which has no
value other than its function of equivalency. Convention is always weak ; it is the smallest common
denominator of exchange and is worth infinitely less than what it represents.
2.21.- It is striking that the evolution of art during the 20th century never ceased to challenge these
two conventions (language and money) which, even today, are still met with mistrust and even a
certain degree of embarrassment. This lies at the root of attempts to deconstruct or deviate from the
conventions of language in works ranging from Dadaist(2) and surrealistic poems to John Cage’s
Mesostics, from the stuttering of Bruce Nauman to the ironic linguistic games of Art & Language. In
addition, through conceptual art odernism has attempted, if sometimes in vain, to abolish the aura of
a unique object by deliberately menacing the foundation of its market value, from Marcel Duchamp’s
multiple eadymades to Dan Flavin’s industrial neons.
2.22.- As a consequence, art has contempt for semantic clarity and economic success. In fact, in
rhetorical and financial terms, contemporary art implies a voluntarily differentiation from other fields
of activity by means of excess and aberration.
2.3.- One might, thus, state that opposition to convention constitutes one of the motifs or, indeed,
one of the engines of contemporary art.
2.4.- Art today refuses to be considered a fixed, organized and regulated professional discipline. This
explains its unconscious fascination with everything that originates from elsewhere.(3) And this, in
turn, explains its attraction to otherness, to that which contests its identity as a milieu. Contemporary
art voluntarily dreams of being a place of transit, a port of registry, a grafted piece of rootless earth.
2.5.- In its relationship to knowledge, for instance, art rejects all cognitive, didactic and edifying
logic ; however, art is nourished by the knowledge, which it continues to create. One could say, then,
that it operates within a specific field of knowledge without submitting to its usually accepted
conventions of usage, production and transmission. At present, this constitutes one of art’s most
interesting areas of investigation.
3.- Art is understood as part of a field greater than what is usually called "the art world," where
professional and social spheres are particularly closely linked.
3.1.- According to the philosopher David Lewis, all convention is social convention.
3.11.- In the art world, there are indeed conventions, but these are founded on the tacit acceptance of
certain usages rather than manifest and decreed rules. I would describe these conventions as "deaf."
Such conventions, which do not define themselves as such, include the possibility of being contested.
3.12.- If we attempt to apply the two conventional standards of money and language to the "art
world," we might say that the two principal sources of convention are the market and art criticism,
both of which contest art’s attempt to escape all language and economic standardization.
3.13.- To borrow an expression from the artist Thomas Hirschhorn, the "spectrum of evaluation"
(critics, art historians, curators, galleries, collectors, etc.) is at the origin of certain conventions that
infiltrate the field of art. These conventions, which are not initially founded on rationality or necessity,
are first and foremost a (perhaps unconscious) way to recognize the self, to relocate it, to define an
identity and borders in those places where they are rejected on principle.
3.14.- Working in the art world, I gradually came to realize that it is intrinsically and unconsciously
"conservative" even in its attempt to escape convention. I also realized that it went along with certain
lifestyles, tastes, centers of interest, and cultural codes that imply being different from the
mainstream. This adherence is significant, even if most deny it. I jokingly call my friends who do not
work in the art world "civilians." Like all specific fields, the art milieu operates according to
conventions that are modified over time and that include certain vocabularies, attitudes, social
behaviors. As artist Dora Garcia said, "Art is for everyone, but only the elite knows it."
3.2.- As a curator, I have learned that it is necessary to place works about five feet from the floor,
repaint the walls white before and after each exhibition, announce an exhibition pening with cardboard
invitations bearing a mysterious title, compose a press release that includes words like de-
territorialization, rhizome, feminine stereotyping, and the center and the periphery, but avoid
speaking of beauty, the audience and Clement Greenberg. As a visitor, I still do not understand why it
is forbidden to take pictures, to enter a museum with a bag, to keep your shoes when walking on the
carpet or, in the Guggenheim, to lean over the railing. A visit to an exhibition in the clinical white
rooms of a large museum is an increasingly codified experience, where guards spend their time
forbidding viewers from any spontaneous behavior. There is in fact a strange, almost masochistic
relationship between the spectator and the constraining visit of certain exhibitions.
4.- Art criticism, especially, is a sector where there are tacit, invisible conventions.
4.1.- In 2006, I wrote a text entitled "Tristes Topiques : Art Criticism is a Non-place"(4) that described
a certain type of art criticism as an automated gesture of thought. It is a practice that may at first be
intimidating (to those who, like me, did not even go to university). But one soon comes to realize that
formal and conceptual repetition (a precise and recurrent semantics, the shared usage of a corpus of
limited references, the formatting of styles, the "international touch" of certain publications) turns art
criticism into an research space of optical illusion, a deterritorialized territory that is extremely
conventional and comfortable for anyone used to traveling over it. It is an indeterminate positioning of
over-determined impersonal and often interchangeable semantics.
4.11.- This text displeased some people, who accused me of "biting the hand that feeds you,"
although my aim was neither to settle accounts nor exclude myself from this criticism of art criticism.
My goal, rather, was to dream aloud of a type of criticism that furthers art through its own energy
instead of serving it up neutrally ; a criticism dedicated to understanding the unlimited number of
meanings of each work by inventing new writing protocols to keep pace with its (disjunctive) subject.
4.2.- Art criticism is a "state of exception" that too often operates within a suspension of intelligence
and imagination. It obeys convention too much, in the sense that it maintains the stability of a
(semantic) system, of a submission to tacit precedents. It operates according to a dynamic of
replication and imitation.
4.3.- There is a language linked to art we cannot escape from, one of which art criticism partakes but
that isn’t art. The art that I love seeks independence from all preconceived discursive logic. It creates,
rather than employs, language. This might be the great lesson of Marcel Duchamp : proposing an
alternative to language that no language can understand or capture. Though the work itself was not
discursive, The Large Glass provoked numerous commentaries (first of all from the artist himself). See
Duchamp’s lecture, "The Creative Act."
4.31.- Art is a form of expression without language. It is a collection of signs with neither structure
nor syntax. This is a fact that art criticism seems to contest by striving to use language to explain art.
An alternative might be a language that is ontologically bound to art, a language that makes way for
endless commentary that, while always insufficient and imprecise and never up to the task of fully
capturing its subject, always manages to create thought.
4.32.- This is the "nuclear force" of art : tiny frictions that create tremendous explosions of the senses
and emotions. It is the creation of energy out of almost nothing, energy whose effects are felt for a
very long time. 4.4.- Art criticism, like psychoanalysis, has a way of making simple objects complex
and complex notions simple. It is a creative and speculative movement of darkening-lightening in a
5.- Art as a creative process that, through artifice, seeks to surpass nature and place itself within
history becomes, in part, a conventional system.
5.1.- The manifest, pre-determined and insistent refusal or rejection of convention entails a mise en
abyme, and thus, in the end, is conventional in that it lies at the origin of the way some art is
5.11.- This has occurred with even the most manifest and durable examples of anti-conformity and
aesthetic marginality in art history : Cervantes, Shakespeare and Sterne in literature ; Goya, Malevich
and Marcel Duchamp in the visual arts.
5.2.- The will of art to never become fixed within a specific field, to escape its own premises and to
continually challenge its own borders will always be limited by the fact that, as Marlène Zarader(5)
said about philosophy, "one doesn’t jump over one’s shadow."
5.21.- Ever since the avant-garde, art has aspired to develop outside established rules and
academicism. At the same time, it ceaselessly seeks to return to its past in criticism or celebration,
thereby affirming its own place in history. In this sense, art is conservative.
5.3.- If there is a standard future for convention, the conventions of art do not aspire to
standardization. Just as pirates organize their own particular society, art defines its own usages and
conventions, which allow it to continue to develop marginally and alternatively. Carl Schmitt said :
"The state of exception is always distinguished from anarchy and chaos and, in the legal sense, there
is still order in it even though it is not a legal order."(6)
5.31.- This relationship between disorder and order heightens the contrast of the two essential artistic
impulses put forth by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy : Euphoria (Dionysian) versus Dream
(Apollonian). That dichotomy entails the cruel and intense pleasure of the immediate, made possible
and intelligible by the interpretive distance of illusion and sublimation. This tension justifies the
conventions of Greek tragedy.
5.32.- Enjoying absolute marginality, artists - much like Robinson Crusoe on his island - can follow the
conventions that they impose on themselves. These consist of creating a framework, an economy and
a work discipline that is autonomous and strictly individual, though linked to artistic, as opposed to
5.33.- The implementation of such a marginal, arbitrary and "sourceless" convention, which merges
with a personal discipline and system, is perhaps the most interesting aspect of art.
5.34.- Rather than destroy conventions, art unweaves and remodels them. In this sense, it is active
and not reactive. Duchamp’s poems do not deconstruct language as much as propose a new language,
whose conventions are imperfection, indecision and systematic failure. The Standard Stoppages are
not a new type of measurement but rather a different measurement, one that deviates from the
standard. Raymond Roussel doesn’t invent a language, but subliminally turns away from it via his own
literary, arbitrary and invisible conventions.
5.4.- These conventions are themselves founded on a tacit and fundamental meta-convention
involving the viewer, perhaps twentieth century art’s most important discovery.
6.- As a curator and art critic, I have never had the sense that I was breaking with art’s frames since,
as chance would have it, I don’t know what those frames are.
6.1.- I accept the conventions of art and curating, but I do not seek a profound knowledge of them.
6.2.- I organized an exhibition in complete darkness, where each work, one after the other, was
automatically lit by an electronic system (Pick-Up, 2004). I myself made substitutes of works that I
wanted to show : scanned and photocopied images (Jir� Kovanda vs The Rest of the World, 2006),
drawn or described works, re-performed actors’ gestures (A History of Performance in 20 minutes,
2003), shadow play (Signs and Wonders, 2009), etc. I also reconstituted a history of perform ance
with 8-year-old children (Child’s Play, 2009). I have inserted heterogeneous non-art objects in the
middle of my exhibitions : books, minerals, games, political banners, etc.
6.21.- When I’ve done those things, I have sometimes been criticized and sometimes congratulated
for breaking certain conventions governing exhibitions. But this is not what I was trying to do.
Breaking frames means giving them too much importance. What I want to do is confront convention
with pragmatism. I want to make the decisions necessary, even if they are dangerous, not contest a
6.22.- I have also organized more classical exhibitions, presenting works of art in a space with no
formal protocol. On those occasions, the experimentation resided simply in the selection and
association of the works, in the tension between ideas and the works that constantly try to elude
6.3.- As soon as one moves away from convention in art criticism and curating, one is accused of
"playing the artist," as if artists were the only ones who can - or should - break the rules of their field.
Questions concerning creation and "genius," as well as risk and commitment, also confront the
curators and critics I admire.
6.4.- Conventions and frameworks are reassuring. To go beyond them is to plunge into the unknown,
into the realm of fear. 6.41.- My first memory of contemporary art has to do with the indescribable,
the incomprehensible, the terrifying, and the art that I love still makes me feel uncertain, unbalanced,
6.5.- If, in my work as a curator and critic, I need a point of reference, it is two-dimensional : love
and intelligence. These are the two horizons that determine my decisions, even if I never reach them.
6.6.- I accept being plunged into convention, but I struggle as honestly as possible against its
influence, whether positive or negative, inviting or repelling. And I try not to enjoy this struggle.
"Knowing how to make a revolution without enjoying it" (Guy Debord).
7.- Whereof one cannot speak, thereof art is (fortunately) incapable of being silent. So is art criticism
(this is proof).
(1) See, on this subject, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s Born under the Sign of Saturn.
(2) Hugo Ball : "I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language. [�]
I don’t want words that other people have invented. [�] I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and
vowels and consonants too."
(3) Also pertinent is the recent fascination with artists who have left the visual arts, such as Charlotte
Posenenske, Lee Lozano and Kathryn Bigelow.
(4) This text was originally published in English in Report (Not Announcement), a project in
collaboration with e-flux, curated by Binna Choi. It was later pulished in French in Howard (a journal
published by François Curlet, in 2005), then in Spanish in the catalogue of Evento te�rico at the 2009
(5) Marlène Zarader, L’être et le Neutre, Paris : éditions Verdier, 2001.
(6) Carl Schmitt, quoted by Giorgio Agamben in his état d’exception (Homo sacer II, 1), Paris :
éditions du Seuil, 2003. (English translation : State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell, Chicago
and London : The University of Chicago Press, 2005.) .
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