Just Another Brick in the Wall essay

Information on the exhibition: www.olgaistefan.wordpress.com

Download the PDF of the entire brochure: Just Another Brick in the Wall brochure

On view from December 8-January 7, 2012, Barbara Seiler Gallery, Anwandstr. 67, Zurich, Switzerland

In the last few years, Romanian artists like Dan Perjovschi, Adrian Ghenie, Ion Grigorescu, Mircea Cantor, Ciprian Muresan and a few others, have been received enthusiastically on the international art scene, with major exhibitions in important museums and art centers, and/or commercial success in galleries. International interest in the Romanian art scene, which for most western curators and art professionals who visit the country only entails appointments with individual artists or speaking to particular gallerists, has increased exponentially too. But a survey of the activity on the local level, or an analysis of the strategies used to develop the local context, has not yet been made outside the country.

Romania, despite some successes of individual artists in the international market, suffers from the lack of a public interested in contemporary art, the lack of internal state, or independent, institutions that fund artistic production, and an inexistent market willing to sustain the local art activity. Such a context makes it extremely difficult for any artistic initiative to take root, so it is no surprise that most of those that do last more than a couple of years operate entirely on an international commercial basis. Nevertheless, they are not the only models that exist…

So, in writing this, I would like to offer the reader a few practical questions that frame this exhibition and the topic, maybe even widening the relevance of such an exercise beyond the geographic area of the exhibition.

Just Another Brick in the Wall functions as a space for the examination of the art system in Romania: what is it composed of, how does it work, who are the main players, how are they connected, what are the power structures and how do alternatives form, what models currently exist that try to shape and change the scene, what impact does criticism have, and what needs to be done for the system to be improved and made functional? But what is this system that we speak so much about?

As early as 1964, in trying to explain the art object and its privileged position among other millions of objects created or manufactured everyday, Arthur Danto1 showed that the art object is differentiated from these others only through the acceptance of an exclusive group of experts that use a theoretical position that belongs only to them, thus limiting the reach of the art object to those few that recognize it as such. And this exclusive realm was to him the artworld.

Ten years later, Howard Becker, a sociologist from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, USA, went even further in trying to explain how artworks come to be accepted and understood as such. “…What is taken, in any world of art, to be the quintessential artistic act, the act whose performance marks one as an artist, is a matter of consensual definition.”2 He revived the idea, which had died with the rise of capitalism, that the production of art is a collective undertaking that includes in equal parts the artist and the “support personnel”, the usually more or less anonymous specialized workers who either produce the object through their masterful use of, uhh, can we even utter the word, craft, then bring it to market, write about it, or create a public who views it.

And this division of labor, Becker writes, is necessary, because one person just cannot be everything – idea generator, maker, promoter, sales-person, and public – despite the boundless powers invested in the “artist as genius”, a concept that came to prominence in the Renaissance, and which has been the basis of the capitalist system, encouraging firm individuality and sometimes leading to a cult of personality.

As an inherent part of the artwork, Becker recognizes the public, without which the art object has no purpose. The art object must be consumed for it to be produced. For Becker, all these individuals engaged in the conception, creation, mediation, and reception of the art object form the art system, which in fact is a series of networks and collaborations.

Becker also understood that to bring the work to life, the artist must constantly negotiate the existing conventions of the artworld, which exist to facilitate reception of the artwork, but which can also limit creativity. The rejection of those conventions often forces the artist to sacrifice acceptance for artistic freedom, and the artist must find alternative ways of producing and distributing (or exhibiting) the work, which is more often than not, extremely difficult and time-consuming. For example, the Center for Visual Introspection is exhibiting documentation from the project Self-Publishing in Times of Freedom and Repression, exploring self-publishing as a form of resistance to the censorship regulations that writers had to accept to get their work published through traditional channels during communism, but also the self-censorship that is frequent in democracies. And similarly the Center for Art Analysis/Contemporary Art Archive, Lia Perjovschi’s life project, has avoided becoming a legally defined institution specifically because she understood the restrictions on her activity that this transformation would entail.  And yet her activity has been more important to the Romanian art scene than many other institutions’.

So when we speak of “alternative” we might refer to a platform of critique of the capitalist system, on which the art system is based, from which we can offer differing models of creation and distribution, which don’t depend on the creation of objects that are bought and sold through established channels, or that are funded by established institutions endowed with power to control. On the other hand, we might also be referring to different ways of organizing and controlling income from sales, not in rejection of capitalism, but rather by utilizing it to self-empower. An example of this would be Plan B Gallery, an artist-run space turned commercial gallery, exhibiting mainly Romanian artists at international fairs, and whose activity has been essential to the current popularity of Romanian artists abroad.

Interestingly enough, these broken conventions can become, with time, new conventions within the artworld, so “the alternative” becomes itself an accepted model either functioning within the system, or taking over, and becoming the system itself. Marcel Duchamp’s transformation of a commercial good (“Fountain”) into an art object by “choosing” it rather than making it, and of course changing its context, was misunderstood at the time as a meditation on form, but even this aesthetic interpretation changed the conventions of art at the beginning of the 20th century. Many decades later Andy Warhol established the idea, originated by Duchamp, of “artist as chooser” not “maker”, when he exhibited real cardboard Brillo Boxes, shipped directly from the Brillo factory, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. These changes in convention, i.e. the moving away from object into the realm of concept, have become the foundations of contemporary art, and with that have also had a negative effect on the public’s understanding and acceptance of what contemporary art is, making it accessible to increasingly fewer people, as Danto explained.

Similarly, it can be argued that art spaces operating independently, without funding from entities that may influence their programming, also operate outside the reach of the general public, in part due to their budget restraints and sometimes in part due to the hermetic nature of their programming and theoretical discourse. This is obviously problematic as the lack of a public makes their work only relevant to the few artworld insiders that understand it, and have the power to decide whether or not those projects should be supported. So ultimately, the independent projects end up becoming dependent on exactly those parties that they want independence from, and are thus absorbed into the system of the artworld. Or, the independent projects’ importance is recognized by the artworld insiders and with time these projects become more and more settled until finally changing into institutions, thereby becoming a part of the establishment and even attracting a larger audience in the process. This might be the case soon enough with Club Electro Putere, whose platform takes locally created projects to international locations to promote contemporary Romanian art outside the country.

It is with regard to these ideas that I approached Just Another Brick in the Wall. The title comes from the Pink Floyd song off the band’s 1979 album. A strong protest song, it was originally written against what was perceived as the mind-controlling system of British education. Roger Waters, who wrote the song, said in 2009, “The song is meant to be a rebellion against errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong.» But it can very well apply to the art system, with the wall representing the system itself, seemingly solid and unbreakable, composed of elements that connected together reinforce it, that once removed or damaged, fundamentally subvert the structure, possibly leading to its collapse. As Becker discussed, the art system is a network of many people collaborating to create the work of art – but in Romania, where this wall is not completely formed and collaboration is still not a generally utilized strategy, can small subversions actually lead to the need for reconstruction? Indeed, the question remains: what is the impact that small subversions actually have, especially if these small subversions reach a limited public?

We can look for possible answers to the recent social movements taking place in Europe, in Arab countries, and in the US. In the latter, what initially started as a small protest against Wall Street corruption and power (Occupy Wall Street) that very few people paid any attention to has astonishingly galvanized into an international outburst of solidarity with the spirit of the movement, getting larger and larger and louder and louder, until finally becoming a force to be reckoned with. In certain countries, where the protests have been the most massive and the economic situation the most fragile, governments even fell. As this is being written, new governments in Italy and Greece are being formed. Spain will follow. And yet, these new governments will operate within the existing system, not outside. They will make changes that will fall in line with accepted economic and political models, maybe cleaning up along the way. It remains to be seen what will happen to the new governments forming in Arab countries, and what systems they choose.

Even in the Unites States, the Occupy movement, which has become an international brand by now, seems to be negotiating existing conventions, not calling for new ones. In light of the demands that

Occupy Wall Street developed as a response to criticisms of a lack of platform, it becomes clear that the movement seeks a system adjustment inspired by America’s own history, making “change” a much more possible undertaking.

This general acceptance of capitalism as an appropriate economic model, if only with certain alterations to give it a more human face, forces us to re-evaluate our understanding of this alternative we aspire to, and its position in this system. Can non-commercial collaborative strategies and the creation of networks function as counter measures to the existing model of art production in Romania based on the commodification of the artistic act and the individualism that characterizes most artists? And would these strategies result in the establishment of a new model, or would they just coexist with the traditional models? But how can these models survive with few sources of revenue and little public? Or is the fate of alternative models of production to exist in a constant state of flux, changing and morphing from one incarnation to another, in constant reaction to the establishment?

As a nod to these issues, Just Another Brick in the Wall doesn’t actually feature objects made by individual artists, curated in the traditional way, by the curator functioning as exclusive selector, with all the power associations that that role assumes. Rather, I offered a platform to a large number of different groups, organized in different ways, working in different parts of the country, to contribute projects completed in a collective manner, through the networks that they are creating in Romania, but also by expressing their opposition to other models that share the same space. The fact that only seven projects are actually participating in this exhibition highlights the benefits, but also the limitations of collaboration, even in such a narrow field as the art world in Romania. And this self-selection very clearly responds to the importance of networks – who works with whom, and who rejects collaborating with whom, and how these choices impact the art scene.

If there’s any benefit to the confusion and instability of the system in Romania, it’s that it can still be shaped and moulded by its actors into something that allows for a plurality of models to coexist and thrive, and for networks to coalesce into a foundation on which to continue building and remodelling through trial and error. In the last few years unchecked capitalism in Romania has been driving many into extreme poverty, and dissatisfaction – with the system, politicians, corruption – is making more and more people nostalgic for the times of communism when the state at least provided for the population. Therefore support for alternative models of artistic production should be lauded and supported as viable alternatives to capitalism. But contemporary art is not seen as a necessary part of society in this country, and there are other issues considered much more pressing when large numbers of the population lives in poverty, and institutions like health and education are in shambles, especially in the rural areas. Contemporary art is seen as the occupation of some crazy kids that not even the wealthy and educated understand or consider relevant. With 92% of the population declaring itself religious and having a strong inclination towards conservatism, it is of little wonder how truly peripheral contemporary art, and its tendency for criticality, is in Romania.

Maybe it is in part also due to this reality that so many of the groups that operate in Romania in opposition to the “system” also have a socially activist facet, tackling social issues in an engaging fashion, through public projects and research, rather than through the creation of objects. For example, h.arta’s work examines local social issues and tries to reach exactly those individuals most affected by the topics, engaging them in the discussions and debates they propose. The Bureau for Melodramatic Research has done projects with the elderly, opening itself up to a new public, while addressing issues relevant to that group.

Or maybe this methodology is a practical form of resistance and subversion, while also being more inclusive of people with no training in art, the public that is otherwise missing.  Bringing art to the people rather than waiting for people to come to the art.  ParadisGaraj hosted its events in an actual garage in the middle of Bucharest, welcoming everyone that had the slightest curiosity to enter, from passers-by to mountaineers, and from students to the neighbors.

In the interviews that follow, some of the participants in this exhibition, and some others who have had an important role in the Romanian art scene, speak about their methods, how they see their role as artists, their public, and how they make ends meet. Maybe through their actions and collaborative methods they will turn small subversions into cracks in the system and thus with time transform the Romanian cultural landscape into one supporting a plurality of models which work together to create a more important role among the Romanian public for contemporary art and culture in the years ahead.

1 Danto, Arthur, “The Artworld”, 1964

2 Becker, Howard, “Art as Collective Action

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One thought on “Just Another Brick in the Wall essay

  1. Pingback: Just Another Brick in the Wall: Models of Art Production in Romania « Correspondences

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