criticizing institutional critique

This is a review of Andrea Fraser (1965) article: “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” (2005)

It could be feel contracting when you are in a museum where art is on display which is clearly (or secludedly) commenting in a negative way on the workings of the museums. (e.g. Hans Haacke – see an example at the end of the page – Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Andrea Fraser, Daniel van Buren and Dan Graham)

Andrea Fraser’s article concerns the transformation of institutional critique as a tool to dissect the institution of art to the institutionalizing of this art form. Fraser is a performance artist who is mostly labelled as an artist performing institutional critique. She is now declaring the death of institutional critique mostly due to its popularity and the absorption of this art form into the institution it once stood against. How can a respected and established form of art be able to execute critical claims? Fraser states: “how can artists who have become art-historical institutions themselves claim to critique the institution of art?” She continues with stating the museum and market have merged to an “all-encompassing apparatus of cultural reification”. I do agree that economic value could stand in the way of some forms of art; it does not mean art loses all its agency and ability to critique institution such as museums and galleries.

Fraser asks seemingly basic question for instance: what is institutional critique? And what is an institution? She mockingly portrays the almost cartoonesque idea the villain institution seriously challenged by the heroic guerrilla artists. In this case, the artist and the art are “antagonistically opposed” to the institution. The museum is misappropriating the way the artist had meant his work to be and the gallery is commodificating the art. In reality, Fraser argues, none of this is actually happening and most of the critique is directed at artistic practices. Art is meant to be part of circulation between the market en museums. Fraser states that from 1969 “the institution of art” starts to be perceived as not mere the museum, sites of production, distribution, and reception but as an “entire field of art as a social universe”.

But from this point, the outlining of the content of the word institution appears difficult to elucidate. Fraser acknowledges this and states that because of this; it becomes problematic to characterise what’s inside and what’s outside. Continuing her article turns out to be a frustrating task. You get the feeling every border you know of what art can be and what an institution is gets stripped away. Is it necessary for art to have a signature? No. Does it need to be shown inside a museum? No. It could be an object, a gesture, a representation or only an idea. It is almost impossible to grasp it. As an art history student, I am aware that what art can be, has a broad spectrum of possibilities is, but there are limits. It’s almost if she’s writing about something metaphysical.

One of her other statements is that we, as art historians, artists, curators or critics are not able to enter outside the field of art, we can have no effect in it. As Fraser states it: “it is because the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves.” The same counts for institutional critique, it cannot get outside the institution and therefore it has always been institutionalised. It can only function and be effective within the institution of art.

And finally, after struggling through the text, I know what she means. Because we cannot get outside the institution of art, in every attempt to reintegrate art into everyday life, to reach people outside the frame, we, to use Fraser words: “expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.” At the same time, we can comment on the outside, although she stated before that we do not have an effect on it, at this point, she states we could have an effect on it. Perhaps there is a slight difference between the two phrases I am not able to apprehend. Nevertheless, the ability to comment on the structures between the outside and inside is one of the capabilities of activities, namely: institutional critique.

Hans Haacke MoMA Poll 1970

Hans Haacke MoMA Poll 1970


Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?


If ‘yes’
please cast your ballot into the left box
if ‘no’

into the right box.

This piece was part of a 1970 exhibition Information which brought Conceptual art to the MoMA. Of the many daring works on view, Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll was controversial by design, taking on MoMA trustee and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. He did this by asking visitors to vote on a current socio-political issue. Beforehand, the MoMA was not aware of the specific question he was going to ask. At the end of the exhibition, there were approximately twice as many Yes ballots as No ballots. Haacke’s question commented directly on the involvements of a major donor and board member at MOMA, Nelson Rockefeller. Hereby he showed a hidden structure of the workings of the museum since Rockefeller was a major trustee of the museum. It also showed that the museum can never be a neutral place since so many different (powerful and political) people are involved.


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