Published in The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist, ed. Jens Hoffman
New York: E-Flux, Revolver, Platform Garanti, 2004
The real question is: Should artists be curators? If so, it in effect dislodges the need for a separate curatorial tier that has long exercised power over artists. Another related question is: Should artists be art critics? What are art critics and art historians besides agents in the service of art connoisseurship and a tendentiously defined art history? This question of whether or not artists should curate the next Documenta1 is a question that has been posed since the dialectic of art and life surfaced as the fount behind modernist art. The question was expressed more succinctly in conceptual art. An ironic response sometimes came from art critics, who declared themselves to be the true artists. I say ironic because of the short discursive distance between Kosuth’s art as idea as idea and the notion that art is only art after criticism.2 Another response took the form of so-called alternative or artists’ spaces, which are often led and programmed by artists and funded as non-profit venues. Women artists, artists of colour, lesbian and gay artists, and artists working in once marginalized media such as video and performance often exhibited their art first and foremost through the alternative gallery network. In Canada, where I live, in lieu of a culture of private art collecting, artists have often played the roles of curator, art critic, and even art collector (by providing their advice to such agencies as the Canada Council Art Bank). Is such a situation a positive or a negative thing for Canadian art? In Canada, the artists’ gallery system was developed in large part as a necessary nationalist project, so there is no straightforward positive or negative answer to the question, but I do worry about the problem of the bureaucratization of the artist.
Should artists be in charge of the next Documenta? Would this result in the further bureaucratization of the artist? Would it lead to the curator/artist relationship being replaced by a bureaucratic artist/artist relationship? Would the guiding hand of the artist eliminate the imperfections of large-scale exhibitions? Would the historical imbalances in art history and art evaluation be redressed, even in part, by the leadership of artists? It is true that Documenta is a megalithic enterprise and one more spectacle, however reflexively conceived it may be, in a world awash in spectacles (and biennials). But the importance of Documenta is only equal to the importance artists bestow upon it. Some editions of Documenta were definitive while other editions were forgettable. Does Documenta really have such a large sway over the performance of art history? Probably far less than most artists imagine. Whether one gets into a Documenta or not, one still has his or her work to do, which is to make good art. Does the Documenta format need to be reworked to better address the situation of a globalized interest in art? Probably, but that is not the same question as whether artists should be in charge of Documenta. Does the circus of Documenta cause artists to be politically mindful of the limits that the art system imposes on art at any given time? The answer to this last question is surely yes, just as it has always been for artists through the ages. The non-identity between the art system and art is a problem that artists should always remember. My view is that the idea of art is always larger than any art system. It is the reason why it is often so painful to be an artist, just trying to negotiate the passage of art into the art system, all the while challenging the historical terms of the relationship. Now that I have offered my thoughts, I ask the question anew: Should artists curate the next Documenta?
1 Founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, Documenta is a contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany. The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By An Artist project (2003–04) sought to explore the relationship that artists have to the profession of curating. Contributors to the project included Marina Abramović, AA Bronson, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, and Serkan Özkaya.
2 Joseph Kosuth (American, b. 1945), one of the originators of conceptual art. His 1968 solo installation Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) included photostats of dictionary definitions of words like “water,” “meaning,” and “idea.”