Free School for Art Theory and Practice

Institutions, institutional critique and the public. Chus Martínez and Dora García Interviewed by Ágnes Szanyi


The Art of the Monologue. Seminar with Chus Martínez and Dora García


Ágnes Szanyi: First I would like to ask a general question that I am very interested in as a sociologist, and I would really like to know your opinion. In the wider social context, the role and importance of contemporary art institutions is often debated by the public, by state institutions, even by artists. What do you think is the reason for this is?

Chus Martinez: Availability. Contemporary art institutions articulate public space and therefore create public opinion. Art institutions act in the present in a way that people feel compelled to answer to. Indeed sometimes the debates have almost nothing to do with an art historical discourse but rather with controversial understandings of the role and function of culture in the present.

Dora García: The reason for this is clear: everybody wants to know where their money goes when they give it away to the state. Art institutions seem to be looked at suspiciously by citizens who think they are just eating and drinking the money those citizens earn through hours of hard work. I also think there is something else—for some time now the public, which was never so numerous as today, has been unable to tolerate an activity which is totally useless (not even entertaining!), and is desperately seeking a “use” for art: relational aesthetics, to make friends, to give voice to marginal collectivities, to understand youth, etc. I personally believe that art will always be and should always be elitist and marginal. Common mortals (myself, and artists, among them) can only glimpse a very small part of its glory, and rightly so. It does not belong to this time; it did not belong to any time, as a matter of fact. I remember in this regard the excellent essay by Ernst H. Gombrich, “The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress and Its Consequences.”

AS: What do you think the role of contemporary art institutions are/could be?

DG: To try to honestly offer the public some glimpses of that glory I was talking about, honestly, without much ado, give access to it, and without instrumentalizing it, as much as this is possible. Honestly try to be excited about it, because it is very exciting.

CM: There is no such a thing as a “role” art institutions can fulfill. Culture is devoted to the mind, and thinking is a priority activity. But how each of the existing institutions—located and determined by specific historical, economical, and social conditions—should activate thinking is an area to be researched. That is why models do not apply. The identity of an institution is not only determined by the community that it constitutes, but also by the way the community addresses the questions that concern it.

AS: And what is the role/task of contemporary art? Does it have any role?

DG: I would say that art, as reality, has no obligations. But artists do have obligations. They have the duty to ask relevant questions and to give structure to the malaise inherent in each decade.

CM: The mind in its broader sense.

AS: The issue of artistic value is constantly debated in the art world and by outsiders, but among professionals it usually remains a latent discourse. Workers in art institutions, art critics, curators are in a position to give value to certain artworks by raising them into the sphere of contemporary art, and neglecting others, while they rarely reflect on their own role. As an artist and as a director of an art institution[1] how do you see these tendencies?

DG: This is a strange question. To me there is no mystery or injustice in the fact that some works are given more attention than others, both in terms of exposure and in terms of money. It is just the law of supply and demand—what many people want has more value than what no one wants. The reasons why people want one thing and not another are as mysterious, mystic, supernatural, as anything can be. Why (some) people prefer Kylie Minogue to Cheryl Crow or Vogue to ELLE refers to a certain status, a law of taste, of difference, of belonging, understanding, sobriety, community. These are very complex laws and not in the least bit rational.

CM: In a great text, “In Praise of Idleness,” he published at the beginning of the ’30s, the English thinker Bertrand Russell says, “Mephistopheles tells the young student that theory is grey but the tree of life is green, and everyone quotes this as if it were Goethe’s opinion, instead of what he supposes the devil would be likely to say to an undergraduate.”

In art, as opposed to ethics, value has to do with desire and the possibility of fulfilling it through material goods. Often, as in the case of Mephistopheles, art and the art market already plays with an old notion that the real, the creative, life itself is capable of immediate apprehension. Certain kinds of art play with the idea that art is green, like the tree of life, real. It is, as Goethe points out, an old trick or an old dialectic of desire. So, in my opinion it is unavoidable for the most part. The interesting question is how to address the conflict. Definitely not by talking to the audience as if they were the undergraduate in Goethe’s Faust and Mephistopheles, the institution.

AS: What does knowledge exchange mean for you? What role does it play in your work? How do you realize it in practice?

DG: Well, vital, as it is for everybody else. Knowledge exchange is vital for everyone: how much does this newspaper costs? Will it rain today? Are you going to leave me? Can I take those pills? What’s wrong with me, doctor? … Knowledge exchange is vital to survival and we do practically nothing else all day long: Where is the bathroom? Do you have vegetarian food? Are you open on Saturdays? … Of course I know you are referring to academic knowledge. But basically there is no big difference. Academic knowledge is fundamental. Exchanging artistic knowledge is fundamental. I need to know everything, always, and my only limitation is time and capacity. I have two ways of attaining knowledge: conversation and reading. I have two ways of expressing my limited knowledge: conversation and writing. I ask. I answer.

CM: As Dora put it, knowledge exchange is crucial. Well, it seems like a sentence uttered by Philip Marlowe because after stating the obvious (and necessary) one wonders what that actually is—sweet and appealing but difficult to grasp. The first problem with the expression “knowledge exchange” is that it presupposes two complicated things: that the parties in question do have knowledge and that this knowledge is ready to be exchanged. The knowledge soap opera starts when one thinks that an intuition and an idea are the same. That is why one does shows with very bombastic, catchy titles, for example, because they announce a set of good intuitions regarding a subject, a discussion, or a body of production. Another interesting misunderstanding is when an idea gets confused with the complicated exercise of inference: that is the logical flow of arguments. Then you have shows or texts that are more assertive, ready to present, show, state. But knowledge, or so it seems to me, is removed from these wonderful emotions related to the illusion of discovery and it is hidden in a quite fascinating remote room where things take lots of time and conversations last very long. Knowledge has to do with research. And if somebody wants to have it in order to exchange it, we need to be prepared to invest (time, money, ego) and also to be aware of the difficulties of finding the right moment for the complicated operation of transmission. Once we get there, one cannot waste it by giving it away “just like that.”

AS: You mentioned in your answer the exchange of artistic knowledge. What do you mean by artistic knowledge? How is it different from other types of knowledge?

DG: Artistic knowledge … I am not sure who said it, a conceptual “father,” I think—it could be Robert Barry. He said: you cannot talk about art if you want to talk about art, you can talk about everything else, but not directly about art. So the funny thing about exchanging artistic knowledge is that it seems that you are talking about something else, but in fact you are talking about art, that is, you exchange artistic knowledge without anyone noticing! It is a bit like extraterrestrial telepathic exchange.

CM: One could argue that knowledge is a complex entity that follows different logics and organizational systems. Artistic knowledge offers us a bridge between different systems of thought. Artistic knowledge is “delinquent,” to quote de Certeau—one of the authors we mentioned in our seminar. That is, it creates itineraries that allow us to combine different experiences, arguments, results. It moves between systems allowing doubt to take place, and therefore it allows a new foundation to be laid for the hard exercise of thinking.

AS: What methods of education do you find the most efficient?

DG: Again, conversation and reading. Conversation, instead of lecturing. Conversation is important because I, as potential lecturer, need to know who I am talking to before saying anything, therefore I need conversation.

CM: Even though I thought I would never refer to a theologian (a joke!), Paulo Freire—theologian and pedagogue—said that the idea of “human freedom” does not refer to civil rights, but to the possibility of being educated towards a free mind. In a world where adaptation to socially accepted forms of living and obedience to norms and laws play a major role, contemporary art is an exercise in a different logic that looks for gaps, and possibilities, as well as confronting us with the unexpected.

In the seminar and also in connection with artistic knowledge, you mentioned de Certeau’s notion of “delinquency,” a delinquent being a person who can circulate between different spaces, always breaking social contracts. Why do you find this notion important in contemporary art?

CM: The notion of delinquency was never really fully developed by de Certeau. The last twenty years, if not longer, have seen an increased interest in the notion of space. Many of our discursive practices refer to the notion of legitimized space, public space, the white cube. A dialogue between art as a praxis and the social as a given space where different agents can interact determined many projects, proposals, and exhibitions. Therefore I think it is important to study the possibility of first finding new categories that would allow us to step out of canonical forms of approach to the subject matter, and second, introducing categories and notions that question the very nature of the notion of “space” in relationship with art. Delinquency is a very productive term in this respect; it is very eloquent by its very nature. We all know what a delinquent is, but it also escapes a literal reading since it would be very difficult to know what to do with it. It is productive since it refers to an aspect that for me is key: opacity, or a sense of privacy necessary for free thinking, for working on different proposals for acting in culture A delinquent reverses the use of the public sphere in an invisible way. More than ever I feel we need the private, we need spaces where hypotheses and proposals can be formulated without already being presented to an audience for judgment. The notions of experimentation and delinquency are close to each other, but the latter introduces a sense of the random that is essential to me in order to understand the notion of the circumstantial that art explores.

DG: De Certeau didn’t actually write more than two lines about delinquency. Three figures—the artist, the criminal, and the dandy—have always been fascinated with each other and have often interbred. They share a very special form of social mobility (they can move easily from one social class to another without ever fully belonging to any—see Beau Brummel, Mac the Knife of Bertolt Brecht, or any Mexican artist living in Europe), and they share an absolute contempt for the social class that feeds them, the bourgeoisie, or let us say, the important and powerful people who control a country or an organization, especially those who support the existing situation. This pariah notion (not belonging, but being present) and this “biting the hand that feeds me” is a “being in the world” that could define an interesting notion of institutional critique. And this notion is also fundamental regarding the contract between artist/audience. Something that every comedian knows: the bourgeoisie loves to be insulted (read here David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote) but up to a point, a point which is very hard to determine and moves constantly; if you go beyond that, you are finished as an entertainer and as an artist. The same can be applied to an artist and an artistic audience.

Finally, and referring to the opacity mentioned by Chus, it is interesting to introduce the notion of code: criminals, artists, and dandies all have in common a love for jargon, a very specific vocabulary that defines them and allows them to distinguish fellow criminals, artists, dandies from squares. It also allows them to distinguish a responsive audience from an unresponsive one. As Lenny Bruce said, “If you don’t get them laughing in the first thirty seconds, forget about it.”

AS: The notion of delinquency leads us to the question of institutional critique, which Dora has mentioned already. Many things have been written about this; indeed, different periods have understood it differently. What does it mean to you? Do you think that critical practices can maintain their criticality in a controlled/protected white cube/institutional situation? Isn’t there a danger that the institutional environment sterilizes them?

DG: I cannot quite answer in a structured manner—the concept of institutional critique being very misty for me as well. But what I could say is, one, every healthy system should support its own critical apparatus, and therefore the institution should support institutional critique. Two, the white cube is a convention as absurd as any other one, and one day will look as obsolete as velvet walls. First time it happened, it was brilliant, now it just seems to make people think that there is no other possible habitat for art. Three, the institution is a killer. It very likely kills any thrill that might be left in the work of an established artist. It is an unequal fight between artist and institution because somehow the institution is always cleverer, and the artist is too troubled by issues of self-esteem. The only graceful exit is to adopt the greatness of the loser à la Michael Asher. So in the end and contrary to expectation, yes, we can, critical practices can maintain their criticality in a controlled/protected institutional situation, with the greatness of the loser, and most probably this criticism is not heard by many people. Somehow it must be coded (again reference to the jargon). As with jokes, it contains the irreverence of the underdog. I just read something which I think perfectly sums up the idea I have about institutional critique, namely the words of Mladen Stilinović in the catalogue insulting the anarchy: “I work from the position of a dead ant. Even though I am dead, I still fight for the disintegration of the system, of grammar. … Let him fight, don’t you see he’s dead, you are saying, the art is saying.”

CM: The question of institutional critique refers to the question of format and context. If art has no form, can an institution build the counter-form? Can an institution meet art’s plural demand? An institution is vernacular, that is, located in a specific place and time, and the vernacular is always able to cope with a limited plurality. Art is a challenge and therefore the goal of institutions should be to get closer to the shifting center of the practice and work from there. There is no other answer and dissatisfaction is always part of the solution.

DG: Yes, although I don’t think that the quote by Stilinović referred to an art institution—happily, these are more often related to the person running them than to the circumstances—but to “the institutional,” as a sort of supra-individual apparatus which has as supreme values stability, security, safety, conservatism, hierarchy. Of course “the institutional” is part of “the art institution,” or rather the other way around, but when it comes to individual relations—artist/representative of the art institution—dissatisfaction is not necessarily the result of it.

AS: Dora, you said in the seminar, the point of an artist’s work is to whom s/he is addressing it. To whom are you address?

DG: So, the quick and true answer—after Kippenberger—Einer von Euch, unter Euch, mit Euch (One of you, among you, with you). The work is made to create a moment of recognition among those who are close to me, without me knowing they are close to me, without them even knowing they are close among themselves, but so that we recognize each other and we are not alone any more.


[1] When this interview was made, Chus Martínez was the director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein, which she directed between 2006 and 2008.


Ágnes Szanyi is a sociologist, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Pécs, Communication Doctoral Program; she is project assistant at