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6/11/12 3:04 PM

Echo Chamber
Is today’s art too self-referential? ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950) Published in 1996, Thierry de Duve’s Kant After Duchamp is still one of the best books for anyone interested in unpacking the riddle of art. The central conceit of its much-cited introduction is that we are asked to imagine ourselves anthropologists from outer space: ‘You descend to Earth. Knowing nothing about it, you are unprejudiced […] You start observing humans – their customs, their rituals and, above all, their myths – in the hope of deriving a pattern that will make Earth-thought and its underlying social order intelligible. You quickly notice, among other things, that in most human tongues there is a word whose meaning escapes you and whose usage varies considerably among humans, but which, in all their societies, seems to refer to an activity that is either integrative or compensatory, lying midway between their myths and their sciences. This word is art.’ De Duve goes on to describe the extraterrestrials’ attempt to inventorize the various things that are designated ‘art’ in human society: ‘images, but not all images; sounds, but only some; written or printed texts, but only certain ones; twoand three-dimensional objects, some made in the image of humans, but also others that are unrecognizable; gestures, cries and speeches, but performed or uttered only under certain, extremely variable, conditions.’ He concludes that ‘these symbols that humans exchange in the name of art must have […] the undeniable function of marking one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying’. In other, more elegant words still, art appears to have ‘no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible’ (my italics). Kant After Duchamp was published more than a
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Published on 24/05/12 By Dieter Roelstraete

Bruce Nauman The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967 Back to the main site

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Frieze Magazine | Archive | Echo Chamber 6/11/12 3:04 PM prodigiously productive decade-and-a-half ago. fashion or snooker. in the above equation. proven to be especially powerful and appealing. these claims must sound as outlandish and preposterous as comparable claims made on behalf of say. or replaced by. custom and ritual begin to make even more sense. is increasingly being equalled with. solid – has over the years. None of them are laws in the strict sense. when one currently dominant trend – art-about-art and/or art-aboutthe-art-world – was still very much a marginal practice. to most people who don’t know much about contemporary art. for reasons that need not detain us now. ‘the art world’. in recent years. it is the art world that is propped up by myths.frieze. Here. of both art fairs and biennials around the world is one highly visible function of this process. so much of this kind of art is being made today – art that requires a wholly new. As myths go. Sixteen years on. the tribally inflected notions of myth. And with this proliferation has inevitably also come an explosive growth of art-about-art and art-about-the-art-world. or why the art world can occasionally resemble the bloodstained site of theological debate. this one – whose claims to truth may vary from the ridiculously tenuous to the. as ‘art’. The claim then becomes that the ‘art world’ can http://www. because none exist in writing – which is exactly why the claims made on behalf of some of these myths often appear so divisive and polemical.com/issue/print_article/echo-chamber/ Page 2 of 5 . or whose experience of it is generally limited to a visit to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. ruled by customs and habits. however. highly specialized and ever-changing type of cultural literacy – that an updated introduction to Kant After Duchamp would probably have to start with a telling variation upon De Duve’s original narrative ploy: one asking the reader to imagine his or herself as a Martian who has descended upon Earth to learn about the art world rather than about art. and that art’s impact upon the general culture is both a substantial and substantively positive one. The effects of globalization have been especially significant in this regard: the oft-deplored proliferation. Quite a few of these arguments boil down to the interpretation of one of the tribe’s foundational myths – one that states that art can (and therefore must) change the world. is that the claims themselves are indeed becoming more outlandish and preposterous. held in place by rituals. Of course. This should not necessarily worry us (they’re wrong anyway). more so than art itself. what’s more worrisome. well. not in the least because the art world was a lot smaller back then.

poster /screenprint on sticker As the art world has got bigger. Thus you might write of an architect.frieze. art’s real impact upon the general culture has decreased. 1990. Scrutinizing the shrivelling concerns of some of the art being made today by a younger generation of artists in particular. in a depressingly small corner of the world (that is to say. assuming that others have identical touchstones.Frieze Magazine | Archive | Echo Chamber 6/11/12 3:04 PM change the world. General Idea AIDS .com/issue/print_article/echo-chamber/ Page 3 of 5 . An important factor in this crippling development has been the dramatically increased dependence. in much art practice. to say the least. conversely. http://www. the art world). I am reminded of the following passage in Richard Sennett’s ode to ‘doing a job well for its own sake’ in The Craftsman (2008): ‘what you may know may be so familiar to you that you might take for granted its touchstone references. art itself has somehow become smaller – and. and a growing reliance onever more specialized types of cultural literacy on the part of the beholder – the kind of literacy or meta-linguistic fluency that allows one to really only make oneself fully understood by an alarmingly shrinking audience. as the art world’s claims to real influence in the world at large have grown more grandiose. and that its impact upon the general culture is both a substantial and substantively positive one – and those are questionable assertions. on an elaborate system of intra-artistic and arthistorical references.Amsterdam Tram Project.

the more obscure the better. like Sennett and Bon Jovi. it will take two generations for this incomprehension to annul them completely. The key question is whether.” A reader in Borneo might not be able to summon up the image of a slick shopping mall and I have never heard a Bon Jovi tune. Although the same claims pretty much continue to be made today. and render them illegible even to us.com/issue/print_article/echo-chamber/ Page 4 of 5 . Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974–5) or General Idea’s Imagevirus (1987–94) we can at least still understand where the claims about art’s power to intervene in the real world come from. now almost 50 years ago.Frieze Magazine | Archive | Echo Chamber 6/11/12 3:04 PM “McGuppy’s slick mall resembles a Bon Jovi song. when dreams about art’s impact upon the world had not yet become ethereal founding myths. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). could just as well have been replaced by ‘art’: a comparable problem can be discerned in the myriad wall texts and gallery press releases that start with the ominous admonition that the art we’re about to see ‘is based on’ something else – more often than not other. memories – reminders of art’s glorious past. art-world cryptologists. older art. USA. regardless of their validity or credibility. Danto in his essay ‘The Artworld’. ‘To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory. its main components are now gossip and anecdote. Dieter Roelstraete is the newly appointed Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. this writing will be incomprehensible. in two generations. folk tales and reigning ideologies are the only things ‘referred’ – or worse still.’ Thus wrote Arthur C. Much contemporary writing is stuffed with casual references to consumer products. a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld. or other.) Looking at Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849). alluded – to by the works in question. And. credibility is the last thing we will attach to them when they are made on behalf of art works that are only comprehensible to those inhabitants of an art world whose tribal structures. where he is http://www.frieze. This ‘atmosphere’ has since been expanded considerably: besides theory and history. of course.’ ‘Writing’. it appears to be much more acceptable to ask what is based upon. older sub-cultural epiphenomena. (Interesting observation: where it is currently something of a taboo to ask an artist what his or her work is about. in this last sentence.

020 7833 7270 http://www.Frieze Magazine | Archive | Echo Chamber 6/11/12 3:04 PM currently preparing a survey exhibition of the work of Goshka Macuga. London EC1R 4RB. Page 1 of 1 pages for this article Frieze 3-4 Hardwick Street.com/issue/print_article/echo-chamber/ Page 5 of 5 .frieze.

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