Questioning the (Death of) Art History in Contemporary Art World
Has the exhibition format been surpassed? Why is there such a high interest in performance and the use of the body and life events? Why are material objects, which once dominated gallery spaces and museum collections, often put today in the shadows? Did the art history end? Is the museum dead?
However, it was never just about material objects, it was about the meanings a person gives to the object, about the different layers of significance given to things, exposed to create particular semaphores. Naturally, with shifts in socio-economic circumstances and our relations to knowledge, many of such objects with a special signifying potential have changed through time.
Still, the object, the painting, sculpture, moving image, installation—these are just mediums of expression, as the body is as well. And if we follow the history of art and its progression from two-dimensional paintings through its extension to the third dimension in cubist objects, and further on to the whole chamber as covered by many installations, then, even the exhibition, or a museum collection of various objects, can be considered a medium for artists’ expression. Writing about the archives of modern art and referring to Baudelaire’s thoughts, Hal Foster once said: if the painting is an art of memory, then the museum is its architecture.
We are living in a time when artists are completely aware of all of art and museum history and the history of museums. Through the constant revision of this knowledge and often appropriation and quotation of their predecessors, they are producing new meanings, coquetting with value systems and questioning the art world itself. The architecture of the already constituted art world, with all its layers, definitely supports their activism.
Raša Todosijević reminded us a few days ago on his performance: Art and Memory. The artist was sitting for four hours constantly saying the names of all the artists which he could remember, from the prehistoric time to the present. As the performer explains, what exists in the artist’s memory is what can influence his thoughts and work. On the other hand, in a studio visit with Vladimir Nikolić, we commented on how this artist activates art history in his works, particularly through video-documented performances. From the one in which Nikolić invited an old singer to improvise a lamenting song on the grave of Marcel Duchamp, to those in which he covered himself with shapes, which quote avant-garde paintings, or the ones when he is directly introducing two commentators to discuss the purpose of art today, this artist is openly questioning his own position and more generally the role of art in a contemporary world.
The last week was truly inspiring and intense. Therefore, we continue questioning artists’ and curators’ methods to survive in the art world today, an age in which everything is claimed to be dead. So, what happens after death?
Dead, or not yet?
Goran Đorđević in his Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum proclaims the end of art. But what he really speaks to is the end of modernism, with its belief in the purity of form and artistic independence. What seems to be important now is the recognition that the 19th and 20th century avant-garde movements, on the one hand, appropriated eastern aesthetics, while on the other questioned the hegemony of the Western approach to the art. The challenge of art history today is to confront the global spread of the art scene in consideration of postcolonial problematics. Post-Soviet countries, in the years after 1989, experienced a rise in interest from Western curators and researchers with regard to their local art scenes, but what really happened was often determined by the desire to discover the Orientalist “Other,” rather than of a deep understanding of each scene. Towards the beginning of 2000, Vladimir Nikolić quickly noticed that there are some patterns, and following these patterns the Balkan artist could easily join the Western art discourse (vernacular, wild, unpredictable characters of Kusturica’s films are the best example of these expectations). In the video named Death Anniversary (2004), he stays silent, while the professional Balkan singer cries on the grave of Marcel Duchamp. The woman folk figure is a metaphor of a wall that the artist cannot cross, as he tries to enter the global art world, as jugged primarily by his place of origin. I suppose the issue suggested by Nikolić is still quite real (especially for Eastern Europe, the context I personally come from), and in this case Goran Đorđević’s Kunsthistorische Mausoleum is really well situated (as a site of contemporary tension). On the grave of the 20th century’s Utopia there are still some problems to be solved, for example: do we (non-Western art scene members) need the validation of the Other to treat ourselves as full-fledged participants? Maybe the existence of such questions means that art as an important discursive platform is not dead yet.
Dead but alive
“The German word ‘museal’ [museum-like] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art.”
- Theodor Adorno, Valery Proust Museum
Visiting the Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum, brought this quote to my mind, but at the same time I found myself wondering: what is the difference between visiting a museum that displays art and a museum which potentially is an artwork itself?
In contrast to Adorno’s quote, I want to borrow the term of “meta-art” from Lisa P. Schoenberg for this Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum. She uses this term for the museum-artworks “not only because they are housed in architecturally significant buildings, but because through their ambiance, style, and organization, they give us meaningful interpretations of art and the world, just as other artworks do… Under the conception of meta-art, although artists cannot prevent their works from being subsumed in meta-works, whether in the form of their actual physical canvas, or through the reappropriation of motifs and styles, at least their works are a part of the ongoing conversation of art.”
Although the Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum is in a tight and damp underground space, full of spider webs, still it has those features that Schoenberg enumerates for meta-art. Moreover, with the live narrative of the so-called “caretaker” person, the mausoleum not only can be considered as an artistic installation, but also is a piece of performance art, which each time confronts the audience with a similar or different story.
You should criticize your own critical position
Goran Đorđević described artists as jesters who are allowed to say anything they want without negative consequences, and I agree. Nevertheless, I would add to this statement that the reason that artists are allowed to say anything they want is because art and artistic critique don’t have a serious social impact and therefore aren’t taken too seriously by those in power. Moreover, current political and economic elite has various interests in promoting critical art. In other words, being critical is quite comfortable and it gives you privileges.
First of all, it is not sex, but activism that sells nowadays. In the art world, this is especially true of anti-capitalism. Innovation, creativity, thinking out of the box, these are the core and most promoted capitalist values. Thus, the more “independent,””critical,””alternative,” and “out of the box” artistic and cultural events and their formats are (documenta is the most prominent example), the more economic benefits they bring (promoting tourism and so on).
Secondly, for the majority of artists and curators, entering the art world means climbing the social ladder and gaining social capital. The more activist, radical, creative, and innovative they become, the greater social reputation and privilege they obtain. More freedom and free time, cool social gatherings, more travel, intellectual conversations, and interesting encounters, good wine, tasty food (basically normal, fulfilling life, which has become a fantasy for the majority of people)… So, it is more about a standard of life and a lifestyle, and less about actually wanting to change the economic relations. It could be said that participating in this kind of “critical” art activities in any way means supporting the capitalist class system.
With this in mind, I see one task of the curatorial role to explain how art works and how artistic events are being used for the purpose of supporting capitalism. But more importantly, to reveal their own role in these circumstances (even though curators, artists, intellectuals rarely do it). This is why the most interesting thing about intellectual (scientific, artistic, and curatorial) criticism is actually discovering what was not criticized and explaining why it was not criticized. (Usually, this has to do with protecting the interests of those who enabled the climb up the social ladder.) This would contribute significantly to raising social awareness and the promotion of critical thinking.
Remember, reenact, reinterpret
In recent years, there have been many reenactments of historical exhibitions and performances; works which otherwise only exist in the form of photos, videos, and descriptions. But what exactly is being reenacted, and what is the effect of the new reinterpretation? Re-staging exhibitions does not create a copy of the original, but makes contemporary statements about the past, in an attempt to identify what is relevant today. Even if it is exhibited in the same location, using the same display design, and including all the artists who were present in its first iteration; the exhibition becomes something different. It reframes the past, tainting it with new ideas.
The performative aspects of re-staging an exhibition are connected to the interest of contemporary art museums to produce value around experience. Instead of relating to the past through images and texts, the visitors encounter history as a spatial event where they can play a different role. The immersive factor in reenactment creates a more personal identification with the past. However, we should not neglect that this memory is mediated, not only by the curator but by the institutions. What are the motivations to bring back an exhibition? Who decides what is worth reenacting?
Private Collections as an Art Form
The urge to collect seems so natural to the art world. The core of this tendency is in Western materialistic relations toward the object as a form of self-reflection. Western culture needs material objects to reflect itself.
Starting from 19th century, Wunderkammer collections of freely arranged artefacts were the manifestation of a collector’s personal interests, as well as they were the culmination of a surrealistic practice of collecting rare and bizarre objects to explore the subconscious and stimulate imagination. Later in the 20th century, collections and collecting became a form of artistic practice. Artists collected and exhibited in order to question (and play with) museological principals, and collections became an exploration of the museum as a medium for examining the limits and discourses of art.
Taking the role of a collector or gallerist, the artist is (re)inventing certain historical narratives. One’s personal collection then becomes a fragment of both individual and collective memory.
Which brings me to the question: If collecting is a form of memory what do we want to remember? This also brings up the conversation with Dragan Papić (owner of Inner Museum) who explained that the most important idea about culture and memory is not to remember, but to forget. Forgetting is not only erasing but taking something out and putting something different, new, inside. So there is no fixed history, memory. The culture is repeating, but in the meantime the meaning changes. Studies should be more concentrated on forgetting, because we cannot remember if we don’t forget.
The museum and the ritual
When one thinks about the nature of a ritual in all its ceremonial mystery, one also contemplates a certain set of beliefs. In the ancient world, the Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual in which the worshippers could achieve ecstasy and communion with the god Dionysus—perceiving the irrationality of the human psyche, while being liberated from social constraints, freed from fear, becoming part of nature again.
With regard to the setting of the art museum as ritual, as proposed by Carol Duncan, how do we set free from the institutional conventions and belief systems that are inscribed by a specific socio-economic order? Experimenting with the exhibition format is only one instrument for altering these structures, and it would not achieve much if utilized in isolation. The museum displays artworks, but at the same time, it brings people together through art. This assumption in turn leaves space to experiment with the ways in which institutions approach not only collective consciousness, but the collective unconscious as well.
In the attempt to “create an inseparate connectedness,” as stated by Dorothea von Hantelmann in her lecture at MoCAB, a lingering thought remains: do we need a complete rebirth or a resurrection of an already forgotten togetherness?
For what comes after the “ritual” of modernity – Toward a new economy of attention
If we see museums as the institutional articulations of European modernity, it’s easy to attribute democratic, liberating properties to its particular medium, the “exhibition.” Surely, the exhibition format brought a shift in the modality of attention distribution—from the disciplinary mode of “one speaks to all,” as in theatre or cinema, etc., to the one in which the individual as a separate subject is addressed. The individual, as conceptual and abstract as it may be, can be cultivated and practiced within the spaces of museums in relation to material objects.
Isn’t it also this allegedly democratic and liberating communication form of the civilizing “ritual” in which the disciplinary gaze of the modern nation state had been internalized? From the uncountable mass arises the new collective set of the individualized yet nationalized citizenry (hence, the national museums), whom voluntarily educate and regulate themselves through the formalized eyes of their fellow citizens. Museums became spaces for individuals “to see and to be seen.”
Some recent endeavors to enclose the temporal and transient forms of performing/live arts in the exhibition format, such as The Tanks projects at Tate Modern, portray an unfortunate attempt to subsume new media formats into the old medium of the exhibition. The paradoxical coordination of placing time-based artworks in the a-temporal, individualized attention economy tells us much about the persistence of the local, historical-cultural conditionality of the museums, rather than their universality. Ambitions to escape from the time regime of the exhibition and create a new kind of “ritual” are more than legitimate, but if the new formats like The Shed (New York) would prove to be sufficient in inventing a new modality of aesthetic communication without falling into a pure spectacular entertainment, is still an open question.
An empty museum
To escape the ubiquitous format of the exhibition one can try to elide their authorship. But there is no real way out. Goran Đorđević places at the center of his practice issues of anonymity and the copy, for example, while performing in the Kunsthistorische Mausoleum the role of the caretaker, an anonymous guide who lectures about the death of the history of art in a dusty basement full of copies of paintings from Herbert Read’s “A Concise History of Modern Painting.” Yet, there is no way out from authorship. Under the pseudonym of Adrian Kovač, his series of paintings “Moscow Portraits” is exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Belgrade, which just reopened after ten years. The museum has a rather conservative curatorial approach with its collection arrangement “Sequences.” Currently only the two lower floors are accessible, the rest being cleared up for an upcoming exhibition. The rooms are bright and airy. Nothing that is put within it is immune from the forces of the museum. Maybe the only escape from authorship is an empty museum.
 Krzysztof, Pomian. “The Collection: Between the Visible and the Invisible“, Collectors and curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800, Basil Blackwell, Polity Press, 1990
 Foster, Hal. Archives of Modern Art, The MIT Press, 2002
 Schoenberg, Lisa P. “The Tate Modern and the Future of the Art Museum“, Canadian Aesthetics Journal, Volume 9, Spring 2004. <https://www.uqtr.ca/AE/Vol_9/nihil/shoen.htm>
 See: Holder, Alex. Sex doesn’t sell any more, activism does. And don’t the big brands know it https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/03/activism-sells-brands-social-conscience-advertising; Afandi, Roselynda. Activism – The New ‘Sex’ that Sells https://corpmediapl.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/activism-the-new-sex-that-sells/
 The Problematics of Collecting and Display, Part 1, The Art Bulletin, March 1995, Volume LXXVII, Number 1