Andrea Fraser has spent 30 years analyzing the systems and structures of the art world—often through performance and, more recently, through psychoanalytic work with groups. Currently the subject of a traveling retrospective organized by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in Spain and the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, her work also featured this year in the “Open Plan” series at the Whitney Museum, where she showed Down the River (2016), a sound installation of recordings made at Sing Sing prison. During our conversation, which took place in September in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, she elaborated on the current state of museums, her role as an educator, and the relevance of group relations to her art.
Anne Doran: Between your first gallery talk piece—which you did in 1986 for the “Damaged Goods” show at the New Museum and for which you created the persona of museum docent Jane Castleton—and Down the River, you’ve created many works addressing the art museum as institution. What is the critique around museums today and how has it changed in recent years?
Andrea Fraser: In the 1970s and ’80s a lot of the critique of museums and museum funding focused on corporate sponsorship, thanks largely to Hans Haacke’s work. In the ’90s, individual patronage regained the prominence it held for museums in the United States up to the ’70s, and the corporate populism of the ’80s turned into the mass marketing of elite taste. In many ways the struggle between elitism and populism has defined the history of museums in the United States, from P. T. Barnum’s museum to the Museum of Fine Arts founded by Boston Brahmins to John Cotton Dana’s workingman-focused Newark Museum. With the New Deal, museums swung to progressive populism, then after WWII, to cold war elitism, then back to progressive populism in the ’70s, with the rise of public funding, then to corporate populism in the ’80s.
But since the ’90s there has been the rise of a particular mix of populism and elitism that I see as the mass marketing of rarefied taste by museums, with a strong parallel to the development of the corporate fashion industry. The cultural elitism of access defined by rarefied competencies, or cultural capital, has now been replaced largely by the social elitism of access defined by wealth, or financial capital. While museum audiences have grown exponentially, museums have created elaborate social hierarchies through dozens of membership and support categories, from a full trustee, to a departmental committee, to different levels of members and friends. So there’s a whole new economic stratification that’s built into museum development. Along with that, especially with skyrocketing art prices, museums—particularly in Europe—have become increasingly dependent on collectors and donors for acquisitions.
Museums have also developed in ways that I see as positive and progressive. The Hammer is a great example of that. Their Talks program is an amazing forum for a huge range of cultural, political, and literary debates. They have tons of music and film screenings and performances. They’re doing increasingly scholarly work. And they’re free! I tend to go critical when I talk about museums but there are also positives.
What do you make of something like the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection galleries at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where, for the next 100 years, 75 percent of the works on view must be from the Fisher Collection?
It’s a serious constraint on curatorial freedom and the museum’s capacity to develop different historical narratives through their collection.
If you did one of your museum tours today, would it be different from the ones you’ve done in the past?
Well, they’re always site-specific so they’re always different. I am considering doing another museum tour. I haven’t done one since 1991.
If you did another one would it be about money?
That’s probably unavoidable now. My performances 25 years ago in museums and galleries were less about money than about class, taste, patronage, and cultural consumption. My work May I Help You?—first performed in 1991 at the gallery American Fine Arts, in New York—is focused on class distinction and legitimation vis-à-vis cultural consumption, and is deeply influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s work. But when I performed it in 2005 for the opening show at Orchard Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side it seemed almost idealistic to engage art collecting in terms of class or taste. By that time art collecting had already become almost pure speculation, with most major collectors buying art through consultants and immediately shipping it to a vault somewhere. Today I almost wish it were still about cultural legitimacy and distinction, rather than just about investment and money. I wish it were still about cultural capital, and not just about fucking financial capital.
You’re currently a professor of New Genres at UCLA. Do you think teaching has changed your art?
Absolutely. Teaching has become one of my primary forms of research about art. Before I started teaching, I did archival research, I interviewed people, I did introspective research—which I understand as a central methodology of feminism, and also of psychoanalysis. When I started teaching full-time, it became a central arena of research. It’s part of what has led me toward a more psychological approach, engaging with group relations and trying to understand what happens in our encounter with art, both individually and collectively.
Do you identify with artistic research?
I just heard a funny definition of artistic research: you make a bow and arrow, you shoot the arrow in the air, you go find where it lands, and then you draw a target around it. I identify with research-based art as a specific artistic method going back to Hans Haacke, Mary Kelley, Martha Rosler, and a few others. I don’t identify with the claim that all art is research and (somehow) produces knowledge, which one hears in academia sometimes. I think most artists aim to produce value, whether financial or artistic; some, to produce experience; some, to produce social change; some, to produce community—although most aren’t very clear on what they want to produce, really.
What do you tell your students about the art world?
I used to teach a survey about the art field but it left most of the students totally depressed. Sometimes they stopped making art for months. Now I encourage them to figure out what they want. I don’t want to be naive, but being cynical or self-defeating is worse.
Where do you think institutional critique lies in relation to the somewhat newer modes of relational aesthetics and social practice art?
I define institutional critique as “critically reflexive site specificity.”
Well, you can be reflexive but not be critical, while even site-specific critique is not necessarily reflexive. But the basic premise of institutional critique, as I understand it, is that you can’t change something over there. You can only change what is present in the here and now of your engagement with it.
It’s important to be specific about what we mean by change. Things are changing all the time, but most change is just a means of reproducing existing social structures. So, critique of what, exactly? And to what end? We’ve mostly rejected modernist aestheticism, art for art’s sake, but we’ve replaced it with what I sometimes call avant-garde transgressivism, transgression for transgression’s sake, critique for critique’s sake, change for change’s sake. That’s what we hear from the entrepreneurial world—change, change, change. Does that mean progress? Does it mean making the world better for everyone or just maintaining or improving our own positions? What are we talking about?
The art world has become a place where society collects and contains the impulse to change, transgress, critique, challenge, and subvert. We can bemoan that as co-optation, etc., but we participate in that by rendering those impulses ends in themselves rather than having specific aims for what we want to change. I think for those aims to be specific and effective they need to be rooted in a reflexive engagement with our own interests, material conditions, and conflicts. Because, you know, otherwise, it’s just rhetoric.
I once asked Hans Haacke, “How did you start doing political work?” He said, “I was pissed off.”
And if I asked you the same question?
Yeah, partly it was being pissed off. It was also being anxious. Museums made me acutely anxious. But if the question is how I started doing critical work, I grew up with feminist critique, with Our Bodies, Ourselves, with Judy Chicago, Adrienne Rich. Because of the struggles of my mother’s generation, for me it seemed natural. My mother was also a psychologist, so I gravitated through feminism to psychoanalysis. Recently, psychoanalysis has led me to rethink aspects of critique. A lot of critical approaches developed out of the conjunction of Marxist ideology critique, which aims to expose hidden interests, and Freudian analysis, understood as the uncovering of repressed desire. But later models of psychoanalysis focus on analyzing not desire but defenses. The desire isn’t the problem so much as the defenses against it driven by guilt, shame, anxiety. The point of analysis is not to uncover hidden desire directly—which just activates anxiety—but to mitigate the defenses that are responsible for repression in the first place. When I understood that, my thinking about critical art practice changed. These days I would rather call what I do “institutional analysis,” but I’m committed to what the term “critique” represents in the art field and I don’t want to abandon that.
About ten years ago I became aware of a psychoanalytic approach to groups, organizations, and institutions, which I’ve become increasingly involved with. It developed in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s out of the work of Wilfred Bion. Sometimes it’s called socioanalysis, or systems psychodynamics, or just group relations. I think of it as a unique application of psychoanalytic practice, not only theory, in a method of experiential learning. So, for example, the public event at the Whitney in conjunction with Down the River was a one-day experiential group-relations event that I developed with the New York Center for the Study of Groups, Organizations, and Social Systems, which is an affiliate of the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems, an organization I’m training with now.
One of the reasons I got engaged with this is because I’m so fucking tired of all the blah-blah in the art world. I mean, I am not anti-intellectual. Theory is important to me, clearly, but the speculative theory that now dominates art discourse drives me crazy. It’s become a kind of intellectual escapism that rarely seems to have anything to do with lived experience or stakes. That’s part of what the text piece I did for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, There’s No Place Like Home, is about—the growing gap between art discourse and the social and political and actual lived reality of what we’re doing, what art objects are, how they exist in the world, what we invest in and act on.
At group relations conferences there are no lectures or panel discussions. It’s not about teaching or transmitting knowledge. It’s about providing opportunities to learn directly from one’s own experience about the social and psychological structures of groups and organizations, as well as opportunities to develop a disposition and competencies for here-and-now reflection and analysis. So I see it as very consistent with the kind of “critically reflexive site-specificity” that has, for me, defined institutional critique: that you can work on only what is actual and manifest in a here-and-now situation.
In the moment.
Yeah, you can work effectively only on structures and relations in an immediate way, in their performance or enactment—but that also means as you yourself participate in them. And that’s the profound difficulty of psychoanalysis and group relations, and also of institutional critique, because then one must deal as well with the conflicted nature of that participation. Critical theory and practice tend to highlight only the negative pole of our relations to social structures, but of course a negative relation is still a relation, a form of investment in an object from which we want something, alongside what we don’t want or want to change. But it’s only by working through that ambivalence and those conflicts that one can change one’s own investments, one’s own behavior, or anyone else’s, if that’s even possible. I don’t consider a work critical because it’s the product of a critique, but only if it can activate a critical process, a kind of critical reflexivity in other people, of their own investments, conflicts, desires, and defenses. That’s what a critical work must do, not just complain about something. Critique at its best is a verb. That’s partly why, if it doesn’t make me acutely anxious, I think it’s not worth doing. If I can’t connect with my own conflict about it and feel that conflict and work through that conflict then I’m not going to be able to get anybody else to do so. If the anxiety isn’t there, I don’t need to do it; it doesn’t need to be done.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 98 under the title “A Talk with Andrea Fraser.”