Fillip 12 — Fall 2010

Once More on Publicness
: A Postscript to Secret Publicity
Sven Lütticken

Among the decisive experiences of the 1990s, for me and many others, were the encounters with relational sociability in art. Often, the practices in question seemed to be all too complicit with a self-representation of the art world as a sphere of relaxed togetherness. My book Secret Publicity, which was assembled in the summer and fall of 2005 and published in February 2006, collected essays from the preceding years, going back to the late 1990s.1 Without, for the most part, engaging in overt polemics against the product known as relational aesthetics, the book still attempted to shift the terms of discussion, trying to analyze the specific characteristics of the art world and its media/institutions as a form of publicness. How do art and its institutions create publicness, and what are the specific problems and possibilities involved, seen within the context of the public sphere at large? 

Looking through the book in 2010 reveals a pleasing mixture of the well-known and the outré, of the canonical and the heterodox—if nothing else, I managed to produce a book whose index combines entries on Clark Gable and Hans Haacke, on Jeff Wall and Wilhelm Reich, on Olinde Rodrigues and Stan Douglas, David Thomas, and.... However, the book is still marked by the organized amnesia that I encountered in (Dutch) academia and the art world of the 1990s. Writing art criticism is an attempt at self-education in public, and to some extent it is dependent on a curriculum set by others. While part of criticism’s task is to criticize this curriculum, it is regrettable that I did not—in keeping with the book’s call for the creation of forms of counter-publicness—amend it more consistently by seeking out alternative genealogies and unearthing marginalized practices. 

To me, the book’s line of inquiry still seems to be a valid one, and the response to the book suggests that I’m not alone in this. However, after more than four years, the terms in which I see the matter have shifted somewhat, mainly because of developments in the field of art. Looking back at the time when the book appeared, it is intriguing to note that the period saw the emergence of what has been called “New Institutionalism”: the emergence in Europe of an increasing number of institutions that differed in a number of ways from traditional models of showing contemporary art. For one thing, these institutions no longer necessarily considered the “showing” of art to be their primary function. New Institutionalism was/is both an institutional practice and a form of discourse produced on, and often by, the institutions in question. Since my experiences with this double phenomenon have had a significant impact on my current understanding of the limitations of Secret Publicity, I will take a closer look at a text that helped define the phenomenon.

In the September 2006 issue of frieze, Alex Farquharson listed curators/directors and institutions such as Nicolaus Schafhausen at Frankfurter Kunstverein and Witte de With, Rotterdam; Catherine David at Witte de With; Charles Esche at Rooseum, Malmö, and then Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Maria Hlavajova at BAK (basis voor actuele kunst), Utrecht; and Vasif Kortun at Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul, as characteristic exponents of the New Institutionalism, most of them located “on a social democratic axis in north-central Europe: the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Germany.”2 Farquharson noted that, far from privileging exhibitions, the new type of institution “instead places equal emphasis on a range of other functions,” especially research, discourse, and education: Many “new institutions” run international residency schemes for artists, curators and critics under the same roof as their exhibition spaces, their guests being active during their stay in lectures, screenings, workshops, conferences and so on.... Production doesn’t necessarily happen prior to and remote from presentation; it happens alongside or within it. Reception, similarly, refutes the white cube ideal of the individual viewer’s inaudible monologue, and is instead dialogic and participatory. Discussion events are rarely at the service of exhibitions at “new institutions”; either they tend to take the form of autonomous programming streams, or else exhibitions themselves take a highly dialogic mode, giving rise to new curatorial hybrids. “New institutions” are deeply interested in education in its widest sense: learning consists of equal exchanges among a peer group in which the ambitious level of discussion is not compromised.

While Farquharson remarks that the New Institutionalism represents an absorption of institutional critique by the institution itself, he presents this as a step beyond the institutional critique of the 1970s, which pitted artists against the institution. What is remarkable, however, is how little the now-aging New Institutions seem to be capable of actual self-criticism, of autocritique. Most seem content to repeat slogans from years ago, many of them listed in Farquharson’s text: the New Institution as a “compensatory public space,” an “oasis of openness” that functions as a radical alternative or successor to the dissolved bourgeois public sphere theorized by Jürgen Habermas: an institution bringing together competing publics in an “antagonistic pluralism,” which, “according to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, is a prerequisite of radical democracy.” This is quite a spectacular exercise in re-branding: far from being structures marked by hierarchical power relations, sites that submit the subject to ideological interpellation, institutions now became agents of radical democracy.

It should be noted that Farquharson already sounded a note of warning: If “new institutionalism’”cannot create these publics, it will remain an ambitious prototype, as hermetically sealed as the white cube it shrugs off. Without these publics it won’t begin impacting on the real social forces beyond its walls. This is precisely the situation now, and there seems little interest among the established New Institutions to come to terms with this. In part, this has to do with their organization and management; today, Farquharson’s comparison of the New Institutions’ seemingly non-hierarchical educational activities with the anti-psychiatry of the 1960s, with R. D. Laing and Félix Guattari, seems even more laughable than it did in 2006. Experience with New Institutions suggests that the model in practice is often that of neoliberal cultural management. In one’s darkest moments, one may wonder if the New Institutionalism has been anything more than a movement to propel some people towards bigger biennales and, perhaps, even documenta.

However, it would be facetious to leave it at that. If, on the organizational level, there is a discrepancy between image and reality, between ideology and practice, this manifests itself on the level of content as a retreat into abstraction and into megaprojects that pride themselves on their discursivity but that seem designed to prevent any pointed investigation or exchange from occurring. This is not to say that one should expect such projects to have quantifiable results; Secret Publicity is, after all, concerned with marginal forms of publicness, including that of secret societies such as Georges Bataille’s Acéphale. While such initiatives are often highly problematic manifestations of political and cultural deadlocks, the imperative of maximum visibility, either for a “general” audience or among a more narrowly defined group of peers and bureaucrats, is at least as problematic. A major problem with many New Institutionalist projects is that they suffer from a positivist emphasis on quantity and a technocratic approach to collaboration—collaboration as networking, as a means of achieving or simulating growth and dominance.

Since Max Weber, many authors have elaborated on the autonomy of different social spheres and disciplines as a constituting element of modern society—and, as Harold Rosenberg argued in the 1950s, each of these social sectors tends to develop a purist streak, developing “its procedures in terms of its own possibilities without reference to the needs of any other profession or of society as a whole.”3 Sadly, his words seem all too applicable to many New Institutionalist projects. There is a faux-Habermasian idealism at play, the institution positing itself as an uncorrupted Öffentlichkeit in which people from different academic backgrounds can gather; however, a lack of precision often leads to a simple juxtaposition rather than dialogue or confrontation, and the publicness boils down to a convivial simulation of debate and discourse. In this way, New Institutionalism is ultimately complicit with relational art, operating as its discursive double. 

Secret Publicity was deeply concerned with examining the art world and its institutions and media as possible sites for counter-publicness (Gegenöffentlichkeit); to some extent, the New Institutions seem to follow a similar course, but their form of counter-publicness often seems to be an unwitting caricature of Habermas’s idealized bourgeois public spheres, resulting in massive conferences at which various silverback self-performers explore the wilder shores of advanced sophistry. New Institutions are seemingly places of great hybridity, which they are indeed as far as different academic and artistic disciplines are concerned; however, ultimately they represent a cheaper, more flexible, post-Fordist way of doing things. In so far as, in a place like Holland, they seem to have taken over part of the job of academia, it is because they are leaner, more efficient, mainly by using temporary contracts and freelance labour. Seemingly, the New Institutionalism has widened the scope of art institutions with its discursive programs, yet the result of this hybridity often is a new kind of purity: the purity of sub-academic conventions. Associated with notions such as knowledge production and artistic research, these New Institutions often end up producing a simulation of discourse and a parody of intellectual exchange. 

To be sure, these are polemical exaggerations, neglecting some of the good work done by practitioners of the New Institutionalism (many of whom are, understandably, not keen on the term). To my mind, by far the most interesting among the curators/directors associated with New Institutionalism—apart from Catherine David, who may be considered hors concours—is Charles Esche; although projects such as Forms of Resistance (2007) suffered from some of the problems addressed here, Esche’s practice at the Van Abbemuseum seems increasingly willing to address such issues and refine and challenge its own parameters. However, in the “mainstream” form outlined by Farquharson, the New Institutionalism is a solution that has quickly become part of the problem. 

What seems to be urgently needed at present is an exploration of impurity: the creation of tactical overlaps between different spheres, of montages—or, if you will, of transversal connections. The name Guattari is absent from Secret Publicity, and although he is responsible for many an intellectual meltdown, Guattari’s cogent passages on transversality might have enabled me to make one extra step, going beyond the need to take critical stock of a given context—in the manner of institutional critique—towards a theorization of publicness as montage. To be sure, the essay “The Worst Audience”4 already hints at such a conception, albeit tentatively; more fundamentally, the practice of tactical impurity is in fact part and parcel of Secret Publicity: many of the collected texts were first published either in the New Left Review, and thus not in an art publication, or in De Witte Raaf, a freely distributed art newspaper that in its pages brought together art critics, philosophers, and theorists and that once played an important role in the Dutch-speaking art world.5

A successful montage of different forms of publicness does not entail the eradication of characteristics peculiar to art. This, in fact, is precisely the mistake made by many recent projects, which seem all too keen on completely dissolving art into a discourse that is neither specific nor abstract enough, a discourse that does not attain any kind of intellectual rigour because it glosses over those pesky little details, the symptoms that make art interesting in the first place. To be loyal to those symptoms, the opaqueness of art, without romanticizing or mystifying it: this is the point of the Adornism of Secret Publicity.

Some have commented that the presence of Adorno in the book was more pervasive than the number of references to Adorno listed in the index suggested. There is something to be said for this. On one level, the book’s Adornism is a consequence of its investigation of the inherent dangers and limitations of art-world publicness; weary of buying into hype, distrustful of all the grandiloquent social and political claims being made by various art equivalents of used-car salesmen, I probably overemphasized art’s limitations, in the process sounding all too Eeyoreish—too Adornian in tone. On the other hand, and more productively, I used Adorno’s philosophy quite explicitly against the Habermasian tendency to posit an ideal of completely transparent discursive rationality. For Adorno, part of the value of art is in its structural sabotage of the rule of concepts, in its refusal or inability to be completely assimilated into the sovereignty of purposive-discursive reason—of which the New Institutions are often bulwarks, with programs based on grand terms that create a sham universalism. 

It is crucial at present to go beyond the instrumental approach to art that has become all too common in the wake of the New Institutionalism and to take art seriously as a discipline that produces (re)distributions of the sensible, to use Jacques Rancière’s term. In the past five years, Rancière’s writings on the modern “aesthetic regime of art” have become almost suspiciously popular in the art world; Rancière’s statement that “Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity” seems to generate a pleasant vagueness, legitimizing anything and everything.6 However, one could and should in fact see it as an incentive to examine possible correspondences and points of connection, however fraught with difficulty, between art and different (especially political) interventions in the sensible realm. In the case of my recent work, for instance, this involved a montage of artistic iconoclasm and various forms of religious, philosophical, and terrorist iconoclasm.7

Other more or less recent projects that are relevant in this respect include the exhibitions Territories (2003) and No matter how bright the light, the crossing occurs at night (2006) curated by Anselm Franke at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, the Social Diagrams (2008) project at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, the re-presentation of Martha Rosler’s If you lived here... (2009–10) at e-flux in New York and Casco in Utrecht, and—to use a non-European example—the Vancouver [de]Tour Guide 2010, with its topological distortion of the “official” Vancouver presented to visitors during the Winter Olympics. Furthermore—to return to Europe—under Charles Esche, the Van Abbemuseum has co-produced a number of artists’ projects that highlight aspects of the contested nature of visibility, both legally and politically: Bik Van der Pol’s performance Close Encounters (2008), which involved a tussle with the Philips corporations over the right to depict their Evoluon building; the project Read the Masks, Tradition Is not Given (2009), in which Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss discovered that to criticize the blackface “Zwarte Piet” tradition in the Netherlands quickly reveals the limits of the “free speech” that is being celebrated by right-wing populists; and SUPERFLEX’s FREE SOL LEWITT (2010), which tests the limits of copyright law through the production of copies of a LeWitt wall piece owned by the museum.8

In the latter cases, we are dealing with individual projects whose qualities—at least to this observer—seem to outstrip those of the institutional mega-projects of which they formed part. If institutional rhetoric is now intent on presenting the institution as productive, this is true only in so far as it enables artists, critics, and curators to perform very specific acts (aesthetic, discursive, social acts) that may, if all goes wrong in the right way, generate a publicness that is more than mere publicity.

  1. The book was scheduled for November or December 2005, but my brand of laissez-faire perfectionism delayed things slightly. The publication date in the book is still 2005, for reasons unknown to me.
  2. Alex Farquharson, “Bureaux de Change,” frieze no. 101 (September 2006),
  3. Harold Rosenberg, “Everyman a Professional,” in The Tradition of the New (London: Paladin, 1970), 70 (originally published in 1959).
  4. See Sven Lütticken,“The Worst Audience,” in Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAi, 2005).
  5. The New Institutionalist emphasis on curatorial institutions goes hand in hand with a decline in the role of independent periodicals and of art writing that is not thinly veiled PR. It seems to me that the role of journals and magazines urgently needs to be strengthened.
  6. Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” in New Left Review no. 14 (March–April 2002),
  7. My iconoclasm project included an exhibition, lecture program, and publication done with BAK (the complete New Institutionalist package, in other words) and culminated in the book Idols of the Market (2009).
  8. All these projects, of course, deserve a fuller treatment, and I feel bad for simply listing them; however, it should not be too difficult to find more information about them online and to assess their use value.

Image: Andrea Fraser, Kunst Muss Hängen, Performance, Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne 2001. Photo: Simon Vogel. Image courtesy of Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne/Berlin/Antwerp

About the Author

Sven Lütticken teaches art history at VU University Amsterdam. He is the author of Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (2006), Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle (2009), and History in Motion: Time in the Age of the Moving Image (2013).

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