PRINT December 2009



Karen Andreassian, Ontological Walkscapes (detail), 2009, digital video, artist’s book, interactive website. From the 11th Istanbul Biennial.

WRITING IN THIS ISSUE about the current traveling retrospective of the work of James Castle (1899–1977)—a deaf and mute artist who, over the course of some seventy years, produced thousands of handmade objects and drawings while living in the care of his family in Idaho—curator Lynne Cooke describes a historical schism in the reception of such endeavors that were never intended to traverse the established distribution networks of art-world institutions. For much of the past century, Cooke says, these productions were understood to be (and were valued for being) totally transgressive, bound and determined to undermine societal norms by virtue of their visionary intensity. Now, in contrast, a feeling of comfortable affinity pervades audiences, whose sense of artistic convention is inevitably inflected by the primitivist—or, as the case may be, autistic-seeming—modalities of, say, Cy Twombly, Hanne Darboven, and Ree Morton, to name just three prominent examples. And yet this new dynamic of ready acceptance only places at risk any divergent worldview that work like Castle’s might propose—jeopardizing, in turn, the productive reflection it potentially offers our own living context. As Cooke concludes, quoting scholar Hal Foster, so-called outsider work can represent “panicked attempts to restore or to replace . . . social systems—panicked attempts, that is, both to record the breaking of an old order and to project the founding of a new one.” How, if not through the reflexive contemplation of such instances, might our own impulses in this regard ever become clear?

Looking back at 2009, it would be absurd to suggest that such a grand transition in culture is under way—let alone to argue that Castle’s decades-old drawings and handcrafted objects afford us a useful mirror in which to view this kind of metamorphosis. Still, at this juncture it might be productive to consider further our excited reception of such work or, more particularly, the nature of our affinity for it. Indeed, for me, the selection of Castle’s retrospective as a highlight of the past year by a couple authors in these pages is usefully thought of alongside the widespread enthusiasm this autumn for “Exhibition #1” at the Museum of Everything in London: a ten-thousand-square-foot installation of outsider art (selected by such well-known artists and curators as Thelma Golden, Annette Messager, Ed Ruscha, and Terry Winters) in a former dairy. At the time of the show’s opening in October, countless artists, writers, and curators called it the best on view anywhere—compelling precisely for eliding (if not flaunting) the familiar, fixed categories and platforms of contemporary art circles and for skirting presiding and arbitrating tastes in both subject and form. The work in the exhibition was, in other words, appealing precisely for its disarmingly, maybe even profoundly ambiguous status. And while audiences’ desire for such an uncertain aura might have been described in other years as a simple appetite for novelty, in our present context the canny name of the venue alone offers, I think, a clue in another direction. That is, when it comes to the reception and resonance of the Museum of Everything’s first show, questions of outside and inside are perhaps less significant than is the status of art as an autonomous field. If some “old order” is being put into question, the depth of our affinity here—as in the case of Castle, perhaps—suggests that the relevant systemic instability is that of art itself.

Which is not to say that correspondences with the larger culture shouldn’t be subsequently discerned. In fact, any questions prompted by Castle in this vein are nicely illuminated by considering yet another of the “best of the year” exhibition selections in the current issue: the most recent Istanbul Biennial, organized by the Zagreb, Croatia–based collective What, How & for Whom, an event that specifically revolved around the possibility of art as a classification-defying, and thus politicized, entity. “The irony, of course, is that the art of today is in the service of politics—but politics cheapened to the production of consensus,” the curators write in a text introducing the show (following Jacques Rancière’s application of that notion to “the agreement between a sense-based regime of presenting things and a mode of interpreting their meaning”). And so this exhibition seeking to “de-fram[e] the apparently self-evident” gently introduced schisms everywhere, whether in the geographical distribution of artists on view—wanting to remap center and periphery, in effect, while circumventing the tendency of the biennial context to render work immediately transparent and digestible for international audiences—or through individual pieces that, whatever their overt political subjects, set pressure against their own circumscribed formal borders. To borrow the words of one speaker in Karen Andreassian’s Ontological Walkscapes, 2009, a quasi-documentary video in which subjects recall a spontaneous 2007 protest in Armenia but occasionally turn to aesthetic matters: A production now “does not have to be art, it just happens to be art”; we can “do away with art, and yet retain what was most important about it . . . [making] a proposition of it.” The result in Istanbul was so much work apparently in a minor mode, cumulatively generating a dense air of potentiality, within which a permeating sense of cultural unease, or of the “breaking of an old order,” was subtly matched with an ambiguity about what art is supposed to do, a tentative probing into the ways in which it might be, and is being, reconstituted—the searching tenor seeming a keynote or, better, the truest subject of affinity, for this moment.