PRINT Summer 2005


Andrea Fraser

WHEN ANDREA FRASER’S VIDEO Untitled was first shown in 2003, the reactions across the media spectrum were all too predictable. A silent, sixty-minute tape shot at New York’s Royalton Hotel, it captured a sexual encounter between the artist and an anonymous collector, who paid nearly twenty thousand dollars for the privilege. The real performance, arguably, took place well in advance, when Fraser negotiated a detailed contract of stipulations the collector had to meet. If art-world cognoscenti variously claimed they found the taped proceedings boring (which, given the delicate nature of the exchange, lent the work its peculiar critical frisson), New York’s Daily News responded with the kind of aesthetic sensitivity one might expect of the tabloid press, calling Fraser’s work an outrageous example of “interactive art.”

Readers of the Daily News might be forgiven if they fail to identify the Andrea Fraser of videotape infamy as the author of Museum Highlights, a collection of her writings from 1985 to 2003 to be published by MIT this summer. Edited by Alexander Alberro, the book attests unequivocally to the artist’s critical rigor, depth of engagement, and slyly subversive sense of humor. Yet the distance traveled between a journalistic dismissal of a contemporary artist and an academic press’s vaunted presentation of the same figure seems very much to the point of Fraser’s larger project. Over the last two decades, Fraser has achieved a certain renown for her work in critiquing institutions, bridging site-specific practices, performance (perhaps most famously in the guise of museum docent “Jane Castleton”), and curatorial intervention. Throughout, she has dramatized the relationship between art and its audiences as a function of what Pierre Bourdieu called one’s habitus: systems of conditioned affects and behaviors operating virtually as individual perception. The reception of Untitled, as such, offers a (perhaps) unintended case study in the terrain that Fraser insistently mines in Museum Highlights.

Allusions to Bourdieu are not made lightly in this context—and not only because a brief essay by the late sociologist serves as a foreword to the volume. Frequent references to his work appear throughout Museum Highlights, underscoring the fact that Fraser (along with Hans Haacke) is among our most “Bourdevin” of artists. Those seeking something like a précis of her methodology might skip to the end of the first section to read her Bourdieu tribute: “‘To Quote,’ Say the Kabyles, ‘Is to Bring Back to Life.’” Fraser is the least sentimental of writers (her prose tends to the pointed and analytic), yet here she narrates in personal terms the centrality of his thought to her practice. She details first how her anxiety about being an autodidact, lacking the imprimatur of an ivory–tower diploma, was relieved by Bourdieu’s work on the “symbolic violence” imposed by the legitimating culture of higher education. There’s nothing self-aggrandizing about Fraser’s insertion of her own story into this homage. Bourdieu’s work on the role of culture in the wielding of symbolic power—as a source of domination and social differentiation—meshes seamlessly with the imperatives of institutional critique.

Through this Bourdevin lens one best grasps the diverse contents of Museum Highlights, which include writings on other artists (Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum); project statements; performance transcripts; speculative essays on working method; and a letter to a curator about the Wadsworth Atheneum, detailing her approach to research in that museum. Organized into four sections, the texts are grouped thematically rather than chronologically. Whatever the reader loses in terms of insight into Fraser’s intellectual formation, however, one gains in understanding the consistency of her investigations.

Foremost among them is Fraser’s thoroughgoing critique of the autonomy of art, largely articulated through her work on the culture of museums and collecting and an overlapping interest in questions of privacy and publicity. In several texts Fraser proves herself an adroit museologist, betraying a historian’s fascination for things archival. “Notes on the Museum’s Publicity” untangles the contradictions represented by the modern American museum: how its role as a nonprofit public institution, devoted to, as she puts it, “providing educational experiences for the public,” leans heavily on the philanthropic gestures of the private sphere. “The museum’s purpose is not only to publicize art, but to publicize art as an emblem of bourgeois privacy,” she notes. “Its purpose, in a sense, is to publicize privacy.” Distilling the private interests of public museums, Fraser speaks forcefully to their tacit pedagogical agenda: to encourage on the part of their audiences “popular identification with bourgeois privacy.”

Though Fraser’s language occasionally borders on the notional in this short text, one could hardly accuse her of abstraction. Essays on the Brooklyn Museum’s infamous 1999 “Sensation” exhibition and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art’s global misadventures in Bilbao (problematic, given the economically depressed and politically charged reputation of its Basque site) narrate the concrete circumstances giving rise to the controversies associated with each institution. Offering a blow-by-blow report of the Saatchi-driven YBA exhibition, Fraser’s “A ‘Sensation’ Chronicle” should stand as the foundation of a canon for anyone marginally interested in the vicissitudes of the culture wars. She describes the events leading to Rudy Giuliani’s retraction of funding to the Brooklyn Museum, prompted by Chris Ofili’s notorious painting of the Virgin replete with elephant dung. But more important, she challenges the received wisdom that understands this row as one pitting a sense of the museum’s growing populism against its perceived elitism. On the contrary: Attending closely to the rhetoric of both Giuliani and arts professionals, Fraser regards these positions (populism versus elitism) not so much as oppositional but as continuous. In other words, the opening of the contemporary museum to a wider, that is, popular, audience only supports its larger mission to valorize cultural practices and in the process enforce symbolic hierarchies.

The kind of dialectical rigor on display here is brought equally to bear on Fraser’s reflections on her practice and that of other artists. The two-part essay “What’s Intangible, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere?” is one of the most incisive accounts of the explosion of project-driven art, typically site specific or installation based. Both parts of the essay speak to contemporary practice relative to an “amount of labor that is either in excess of, or independent of, any specific material production and which cannot be transacted as . . . a product.” Part two offers a brilliant genealogy on the notion of art as the provision of service, grounded in the Conceptual art of the 1960s, from Haacke, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers to the radical claims of the Art Workers Coalition. Fraser’s practice is itself a reflection on this history—as embedded in a critical tradition responding to the pressures and ideology of the service industry.

No matter how instructive these contributions, my guess is that most readers will acquire Museum Highlights primarily for its fascinating transcripts of Fraser’s performances. Surely the text for her turn as museum-docent-avatar Jane Castleton, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989, injects a good shot of humor into the proceedings, skewering the PR speak and civic boosterism that are the standard fare of gallery talks. Still, this performance and others are no mere insider jokes: Fraser’s lengthy endnotes reveal that statements casually dispatched in the course of her work draw from a wealth of archival and bibliographic sources, attesting to the conflicted histories of the museum or trafficking in the language of art criticism. The notes to Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, for instance, chronicle the founding of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its entanglement with the history of a local poorhouse.

The effect of reading these transcripts (and then imagining them performed by Fraser) is uncanny. It’s as if the artist were a medium channeling the collective Geist of the art world, casting forth little-acknowledged voices and attitudes that nonetheless have shaped the contemporary-art habitus. These transcripts, along with the other essays in Museum Highlights, are a testament to Fraser’s forcefulness as a writer, one for whom the act of writing—and by necessity reading and researching—is indivisible from her practice as an artist.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.

Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, edited by Alexander Aberro. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 320 pages.