New York

Andrea Fraser

American Fine Arts

Back in 1969, Robert Smithson was already musing on the problem of the institution. “The object or the system will always crush its originator,” he wrote. “Eventually he will be overthrown and be replaced by another series of lies . . . An art against itself is a good possibility, an art that always returns to essential contradiction.” An “art against itself” was one whose diminished materiality stood in opposition to its supportive structures (galleries, museums, collectors) and their demand for material goods. Of course, art as idea, and the ephemera that resulted from project-oriented or “post-studio” practices, was easily “objectified” (despite claims made on behalf of the elimination of the object). Certificates for sculpture were bought and sold, as were reproduction rights for texts or “ideas,” and documents related to performance events.

Thirty years after the heyday of “dematerialization” and inaugural forms of institutional critique, a new generation of artists situates its activity in critical and contradictory relation to its institutional affiliates. In effect, the artist is commissioned (i.e., granted permission) by the institution to undertake an examination of its internal politics and practices; to contextualize those findings with respect to larger social/political/economic frameworks; and, finally, to deliver a presentation and/or product that functions as the “work of art.”

In her most recent exhibition, Andrea Fraser transformed the gallery into a showroom in which prospective clients could avail themselves of promotional materials describing Fraser’s “artistic services.” In four different brochures, all entitled Preliminary Prospectus, 1993, she identifies her target audiences as individuals, corporations, cultural constituency organizations, and general-audience public or private nonprofit cultural institutions. Documentation of major projects commissioned over the past five years (audio- and videotapes, posters, transcripts, catalogues, etc.) was available for inspection, and a friendly agent stood ready to assist interested parties. As each Preliminary Prospectus indicates, the artistic services Fraser provides consist of two phases: the first, interpretative; the second, interventionary.

Needless to say, a certain “clientele”—critics, curators, artists, those who might be interested in but would not necessarily purchase those services—is not directly addressed in her promotional material. Instead, those who constitute the “intelligentsia” of the art world are placed under the rubric of “the public.” Strictly speaking, “the public” does not exist, and Fraser’s voice is aligned not with this putative entity but with the institution; she speaks of it and to it, but always from within it, which accounts for the guises she often adopts—the docent, the tour guide. (To this we might add the artist as revealer of social truths.) But sometimes Fraser’s circuits get cross-wired. Her voice is one that speaks down to the institution and her “public” alike, with invincible power and authority. Sometimes that voice insults our intelligence, as was the case at the last Venice Biennale, where Fraser displayed a penchant for selecting the poorest rather than the most critically probing of the texts that, over the years, have come to constitute the written record of the Biennale, and that served as the basis of her “on-site” investigation. Sometimes Fraser’s “artistic voice” is so intent on revealing the internal biases or failings of the institution that she fails to introduce the vital element of self-critique. The problem resides in that part of Fraser’s activity that she terms “interpretation.” While her “interventions” are often revealing and entertaining, the interpretative component of her practice is distressingly oppressive. Fraser might consider Smithson’s observation, that an art against itself, an art of essential contradiction, is a good possibility—perhaps the only possibility. At present, that aspect is missing in her work. Perhaps she has yet to hear the sound of her own voice.

Jan Avgikos