Apparatus and the Politics of Art

Some issues that have been raised recently in relation to the politics of participating in biennial exhibitions need to be clarified.

In his essay ‘Author as Producer’ from 1924, Walter Benjamin does not interpret works but analyses the relationship between the artwork and the productive apparatus, arguing that there is a distinction to be made between works that ‘supply a productive apparatus without changing it’ and works that call forth a new apparatus.

Brecht’s plays, and the radical Moscow theatre of Tretyakov, were not merely adventurous in their form but challenged the institution of the theatre. Some of Benjamin’s themes will be familiar to students and advocates of institution critique but his examples do not fit the mould. One waybof thinking about Benjamin’s concept of apparatus and the examples he gives is that they constitute the pre-history of institution critique, namely the avant-garde (itself described by Peter Bürger as ‘the critique of art as an institution’). A more radical reading, I would argue, is to see Benjamin, Brecht et al as pointing towards a more expansive conception of art’s social, political, economic and material production and reproduction.

Mel Ramsden picked up Benjamin’s theme in his essay ‘On Practice’ from The Fox magazine in 1975, which Alexader Alberro tells us is the first published reference to ‘institution critique’, though, it must be said, Ramsden is caustically critical of this nascent strategy. ‘The products may change,’ he says, ‘modifications occur all the time (an endless spectacle), but the form of life remains the same’. If we read ‘forms of life’ as a more sociologically inflected version of what Benjamin calls the apparatus, then Ramsden is clearly having a Benjaminian moment here!

Just like Benjamin, whose essay on the author as producer introduces the concept of apparatus to counter the apparent politics of both Socialist Realism and Russian Futurism, Ramsden dismisses the idea that new, better, more critical artworks can ‘solve’ the problem of art’s commodification and bureaucratization. Neither political content nor the politicisation of form can adequately substitute for the political transformation of the apparatus. ‘Even those [artists] who profess unique political awareness’, Ramsden says, ‘just don’t make the connections they ought to between their work and (e.g.) the spread of a marketing expedient like “international art”.’

Robert Smithson, two years earlier, called for an ‘investigation into the apparatus the artist is threaded through’. This has been interpreted as a precursor of institution critique, perhaps justifiably, but Smithson’s reference to apparatus is, at the very least, ambiguously related to the concept of institution. Is apparatus a synonym for institution, does it refer to some element within the institution (perhaps the infrastructure rather than the discourse?), or does the apparatus refer to the specific social conditions in which the institution is situated?

Institution Critique has raised the bar for thinking about art’s immanent political engagement. Jean-Luc Godard’s injunction, which retains its validity today, not to make political art but to make art politically, finds an echo in Institution Critique. Here the artist confronts the conditions of artistic production directly, like the proletariat confronts capitalism via the factory or the feminist confronts patriarchal society via the family. Institution Critique is the politicization of art itself. Alexander Alberro constructs a very elegant account of Institution Critique, in which the Enlightenment created the institutions of the public sphere on the basis of a formal universalism (universal public access to knowledge and the arts among them) which has consistently failed to include the whole of actual society.

Institution Critique, Alberro argues, has for most of its history been shaped by the agenda of demonstrating that art’s apparently universal institutions are in fact bias towards particular social interests. The coherence of Alberro’s argument is philosophically satisfying, as is Blake Stimson’s somewhat Adornian version of the same argument that ‘institution critique preserved the institution of art … by holding it accountable to its founding ideas’. It is not easy to confirm this account empirically, though, as many artists who are central to Institution Critique do not share the particularist agenda. Michael Asher, for instance, does not move walls and other things with any specific social group in mind. And Carnevale’s ‘Lock Up Action’ used the gallery as a stand-in for the invisible constraints, discomfort and anxiety of everyday life.

The expansion of institution critique in the 1990s, which argued that the institution of art is suffused with extra-institutional factors such as class, gender, race and geography, is ambivalent in this respect, implying both that there are material forces at work outside the frame of the institution while arguing, simultaneously, that the institution is an immanent carrier of these extra-institutional structures. That is, the institution is recognised as significantly less than the totality but can be a stand in for the totality because it is regarded as a filter of society at large. The relationship between institution and totality can be fudged to reinforce the value of institution critique. Some precision is called for, I think.

In one sense totality is out of fashion, but in another, namely the tendency to refer to the society or the world as a whole (eg globalization, post-Fordism), totality is a conspicuous and perhaps inevitable symptom of contemporary thought. Peter Osborne defines the concept of ‘contemporary art’ precisely in terms of the necessary fiction of the global. But totality is often expressed through its parts, in ways that suppress the totality. When one element is singled out as having privileged significance or agency in relation to the totality then we correctly speak of determinism or reductionism.

In his book Television Raymond Williams highlights the problems of technological determinism in particular but rejects all forms of determinism in favour of an analysis of the full range of factors, or, we might say, the totality that the privileged aspect appears to monopolise. Roy Bhaskar calls this ‘detotalization’, rightly putting the emphasis on the suppression of (all other) factors. David Harvey lists the typical or dominant forms of reductionism, including economic determinism, technological determinism, class determinism and linguistic determinism. Harvey’s list includes institution determinism.

David Harvey explains that social theorists often take one aspect of the totality ‘and view it as the “silver bullet” that causes all change’, explains everything and is the sole or primary focus of political and intellectual attention. Harvey gives us a list of current versions of ‘silver bullet’ theories, including technological determinism, environmental determinism, daily life determinism, labour process determinism, class struggle determinism and, finally, institutional determinism. You can add your own favourites to the list, perhaps incorporating linguistic determinism, discourse determinism, epistemological determinism, solid state material determinism or particularity determinism. Harvey points beyond these various types of determinism by urging us to trace ‘the dialectical motion across … moments’. Harvey identifies 7 moments of the social totality, which he expands from a list of 5 elements identified by Marx.

I think we need to expand the list still further, but I will start with Harvey’s list. ‘Social change arises … through the dialectical unfolding of relations between … a) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and consumption, b) relations to nature, c) social relations between people, d) mental conceptions of the world, e) labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects, f) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, g) the conduct of daily life and activities of social reproduction’. This list may not be exhaustive but I think we can agree that institutions count as, at most, just one of the 7, or only part of one. If we are going to address the full extent of art’s material and intellectual conditions of reproduction, therefore, we must look further than art’s institutions.

I don’t want to retreat from Institution Critique; I want to expand its terms of engagement. I would argue that art has to be understood in terms of the totality of forces and relations that reproduce it and reproduce the society to which art, in its current forms, belong. Art’s institutions are not coextensive with this totality. The totality I call the apparatus. I take this idea from Walter Benjamin, who, in his essay ‘Author as Producer’ from 1924, extended the argument of Sergei Tretyakov that ‘specialists’ after the revolution need to perform a critical appraisal of their field rather than use it as a platform from which to issue universal truths. Tretyakov worked in the experimental theatres with Eisenstein and Arvatov in Moscow in the 1920s. As Raunig puts it, ‘Tretyakov saw the future of Soviet production art in the mass of worker correspondents, the reporters and amateur photographers, the newspaper and radio-makers, in short the “factographs”.’

Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde as the critique of art as an institution, or what Thierry De Duve calls ‘generic art’, as well as the avant-garde’s own term, anti-art, all capture something that is vital to the first wave of Institution Critique which Alberro, Fraser and Rogoff appear to neglect. Institution Critique does not begin as a complaint about how art’s institutions are not as universal as they ought to be, but, as the frameworks for designating what art is, are the means through which to critique art as such rather than this or that art. John Searle, Arthur Danto and George Dickie’s analytic and conservative institutional theory of art establish an unlikely alliance with Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Gilles Deleuze in theorising art not in terms of artists, artworks, intentions, taste and so on, but in terms of the institutions that produce the conditions for the possibility of art. So, traditional thinking on art goes something like this: everything starts with the artist and proceeds naturally to the art which the artist freely makes.

The sequence of the traditional humanist view of art is a causal chain beginning with the individual producer:

artist -> art -> gallery

This can be enough for certain studies of art, with only peripheral or grudging reference to art’s institutions or the society in general in which the institution is located. After the advent of a range of institution theories, from the Frankfurt School to the art critic of the New Yorker, the causal chain appears to have gone in reverse. In Carol Duncan’s brilliant analysis of the civilizing rituals of the art museum from 1995, the institutions of art are characterised as scripting behaviour. The old humanist sense of individuals making their own meanings across a neutral continuum of time and space is challenged by the Foucauldian conception of institutions as regulating discourses that produce subjectivities. In the institutions of art viewers enact a drama of enlightenment, Duncan says.

The effect of the institution, in her view, is indiscriminate: it is no different for viewers faced with anti-art, avant-gardism and Pop: ‘In the art museum, even reproductions of beer or soup cans achieve this meaning as do other works that depend heavily on non-art objects for their form or materials’. The artist is made possible by the pre-existence of art, which is shaped by art’s institutions, which are, in turn, created and sustained by certain specific kinds of society. When this chain is abbreviated, as it often is, we are left with the uncomfortable assertion that artists serve the narrow interests that dominate society at large.

The causal chain is reversed:

museum -> art -> artist

Instead of turning the arrows around that link artist-art-institution-society, I want to speculate about other, non-causal, connections. Can we not imagine artists having an antagonistic relation to art? Of not merely being the instrument and agent of art as such. Don’t artists necessarily take sides with one kind of art, not all of it? In this sense, to be for or against art as such rather than taking sides with one kind of art against all others, is to be naive, indiscriminate and dull. Can art not stick in the throat of art’s institutions? No matter how much we are convinced of the recuperative power of art’s institutions, don’t we recognise that some art is more difficult to recuperate, more risky and more trouble than others? Are institutions not capable of defending practices from society at large?

Rather than thinking of art’s institutions (galleries, museums, magazines, schools) as the passive conduit through which power and wealth control art, should we not acknowledge that art’s institutions can hold off political instrumentalization and market forces? Institution Critique has been ambivalent on the these questions, emphasizing the artist’s complicity and reducing the extent of the artist’s potential antagonism with art, often by placing the artist in a hysterical relationship to the power of the institution.

Institution Critique has come to lament its own success in transforming art’s institutions, suggesting that art’s transgression of the institutional framework has a limited shelf-life and afterwards is fully recuperated by the institution making minor adjustments. The idea of art’s institutions safeguarding art from society at large has played little or no part in the history of Institution Critique, recuperation theory and avant-garde practice. This is enormously regrettable, in my view.

Think, for instance, of Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary book ‘A Room of One’s Own’ based on two lectures given in 1928. Addressing the question of the relationship between women and literature, Woolf rejected the idea of talking at length about the few women writers who had published successfully with great works. Instead, she argued that there are material preconditions for writing which most women throughout history have been denied. It is in this book that Woolf famously imagines the fate of Shakespeare’s sister.

Equally gifted but female, she would not have gone to school to learn grammar and logic, would not have read Horace or Virgil, and, like all women, would not have been permitted to act in the Elizabethan theatre, as her brother did. What if she picked up William’s books once in a while, Woolf asks. No doubt her parents would scold her and tell her to mend the stockings or mind the stew. Reading was not appropriate for girls and women of that epoch. Genius, she says, must have existed among women and the working class throughout history but was always suppressed, under-nourished and would have felt more like a torture to them. Woolf explains, ‘a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry old have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty’.

Woolf, argues, therefore, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. A room of one’s own is an institution for writing that women and the working class had been denied for centuries.

The home has been shown to be an institutional of social control by feminist political analysis. In fact, Woolf herself talks about rooms in which daughters and wives are beaten. Women have been ‘flung around the room’, she says, or locked up in a room. The family home and marital home have been precisely arranged to control women, to put them under the law of the master of the house. Taken as a whole, the home is an institution that has interpellated women as wives, as mothers, as unpaid workers, as chattels and worse.

The ideology of the home as a place of domestic bliss is the perfect mechanism for recreating this zone of violent subordination, just as the ideology of artistic autonomy is the perfect foil for the instrumentalization of art. The home institutionalizes women within the patriarchal system, just as the gallery and museum marks us out as cultivated or philistine, artist or viewer, expert or consumer. But what of the room of one’s own? And what of the institution of one’s own? The room of one’s own is an institution of emancipation.

I want to stress here that the room of one’s own is set aside within the home: the institution of emancipation exists, in this example, inside the fabric but outside the regime of the patriarchal institution of social control. Imagine, then, a young woman at the time of Woolf’s youth who writes secretly in the attic or the barn. She is discovered by her father and beaten. Her mother, who, let’s say, was a thwarted poet, manages to convince her husband that writing poetry is acceptable. Now, the father agrees to allow the girl to use the vacant servant’s bedroom as a place to write on certain days of the week after her chores are finished. Are we going to say that the young writer has, therefore, been recuperated, or is this room of her own, a room that is her domain, an institution that makes great writing possible? This institution of writing is also an institution of a new subjectivity for the girl. What every thwarted individual needs, surely, is an institution of one’s own. These are institutions of emancipation.

Benjamin uses the term apparatus to refer to something greater than art’s institutions, more material than the Deleuzean concept of ‘dispositif’, more political than Lecercle’s concept of pragmatics, more infrastructural than Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘habitus’ and the ‘field’ and less restricted than Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses, although it appears to include all of these. The concept of apparatus can be understood as referring to the totality of social, material, economic, discursive and institutional determinants of a practice. The politics of art cannot be limited to confrontations between engaged artists and art’s institutions, nor merely to a concatenated understanding of the embeddedness of art’s institutions within capitalist society.

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