The exhibition, Abstract Possible: The Stockholm Synergies at Tensta Konsthall and Bukowskis exposes a problem that both Swedish and international art criticism has had for quite a long time. Political exhibitions that don’t just represent opinions or document political situations, that work within the political – as, for example, Santiago Sierra does, or Maria Lind – is not treated by criticism as art in politics, or in the realm of the political. Instead, criticism talks about the artist’s, or in Maria Lind’s case, the curator’s, methods and evaluates them from a moral perspective. In these situations, it seems criticism abandons art and focuses on the individual instead – critical thinking is abandoned in favour of views concerning morality. What is political in art is marginalized – as is the exhibition the criticism should be about.
The shortcomings of the art critic constitute a problem that has to do with the public sphere. It confines the art of criticism to slogans and positions (within given categories, i.e. for or against). It excludes the possibility that a curator can work with the political in an exhibition, regardless of its content. The politics of the curator can, in our public sphere, only be mediated via language. As we see it, Maria Lind’s exhibition, Abstract Possible, has an immediate, timely relevance in terms of cultural politics. It is a criticism, or problematising, of the highly valued idea that publicly-financed institutions should in part be financed through “cooperation” or “collaboration” with commerce and industry – with business. This, in turn, opens up a discussion that is relevant to many people in Sweden, not least within educational institutions. It is a much more important debate than the current one, which is actually more about Maria Lind’s moral status.
Maria Lind has also stressed that the issue is not about Bukowskis, and in her DN article, she points precisely to the problem with public institutions’ financing and forced collaboration with commercial interests. This is a stance that doesn’t seem to ring bells for anyone. Perhaps she could have emphasized this problem more; however her exhibition demonstrates the problem more clearly than a short article in a daily newspaper – so why this harping on her?
Let us begin from the beginning. What is the relevant artistic production here – that should be addressed by the critic? A curator in an under-financed, public art gallery collaborates with commercial interests to obtain money for the gallery. This is not only in order, but it is also a cherished strategy in politics. In this sense, Maria Lind’s measures are merely normal and acceptable. But of course, companies only cooperate with projects of interest to them. In this way, they can direct what is shown at publicly funded galleries – at the taxpayers’ galleries. What do we think about that? How can we prompt a debate on galleries’ financing in an age of alliances with commercial interests?
It is generally thought that Maria Lind would rather not have anything to do with the market. She is well known as a critic of capitalism. Thus, as a curator she can utilize this position by making the collaboration a curatorial manifestation or protest. The signal her reputation allows her to send is this that if she – of all people – cooperates with capital; there must be something wrong in the system. She would not do it of her own accord. And it would be natural to interpret such a gesture as a non-voluntary action. However, it is not certain that the gesture should be regarded at all since this kind of cooperation has become so common that no one would react. Therefore she must choose her collaborators in a conspicuous way – in order for the gesture to be seen as a problematization of cultural policy. Her choice must pinch a nerve. Bukowkis is a very good choice for two reasons.
Firstly, Bukowskis is the most prominent actor on the second-hand art market. Cooperation with such an actor should also engage gallerists since their activities are threatened if newly produced art is sold directly by an auction house without passing through the galleries first. Thereby the commercial side of the art world is forced to engage with questions regarding the funding of public art galleries. Bukowiskis’ Managing Director has very rightly also presented his company as one with contacts with the most contemporary art, put gallerists and institutions together as working in old, antiquated structures. With this, Lind may have representatives from the traditional art market on her side since they might very well feel threatened by such cultural policies.
Art criticism has not understood the involvement with Bukowskis as having a strategic, political function in the exhibition. Critics have not seen it as a curatorial strategy in order to give an exhibition cultural political drive. Instead of concentrating on general political relevance, the focus has been shifted to the personal. On that level, it is seen as contradictory, as an inconsistency between Maria Lind’s views and her actions. Personal and individual credibility have become the commentators’ themes instead of art, cultural politics and policies. This is a shift that is familiar from the realm of politics, not least from neo-liberal post-politics, where there is a prevalence of efforts to transform political questions into personal ones – ideally, into moral questions. Would you buy a used car from Maria Lind? Does she have any critical credibility as a person? No questions about her project.
However, as we see it, Lind courageously reckons on people not thinking that she has changed or given up on her previous convictions. She dares to believe that a little knowledge about her background should suffice to convince people that criticism is embedded in her collaboration with Bukowskis.
The second reason for a curator with a critical attitude toward capitalism and who works under straitened circumstances in a publicly funded art institution to choose Bukowskis in order to question the cultural political system is, of course, that Bukowskis is owned by a company with a particularly bad reputation. It may very well be the most despised company in Sweden at the moment. If we ask ourselves what the primary point of Lind’s cooperation with such a repugnant company might be, we cannot say that it’s about zeroing in on Lundin Oil. Of course, such cooperation should prompt a number of general moral objections. However, for a curator to think that an extremely limited connection between Lundin Oil and an art gallery in Tensta should spark off a debate that has not even been achieved by the Swedish foreign minister’s professional involvement with that same company, would be presumptuous indeed! No, the curatorial point of framing an exhibition in this way, given the curator’s critical attitude to the market, must be to call into question the notion that collaboration with business interests is a better form of financing than using public means, regardless of what company the curator chooses to work with.
All this can be taken as the curatorial framing of the Tensta exhibition: the curator’s background, the financial aspect of an exhibition about, e.g. economic abstraction and the choice of partners to cooperate with. It need not necessarily be seen as an external, administrative frame. On the contrary, the framework can be used as part of the phenomenon that the exhibition is – and that phenomenon is artistic, or aesthetic. At least, that is what we may assume given the way researchers have begun to study exhibitions, not only within the subject of curatorial studies but also within the general subject of art history. If the exhibition is taken as an artistic phenomenon, then this should be what art critics direct their attention to. But in the present case, that has not happened.
What critics have attended to has been confined to the choice of individual pieces and their presentation. The rest has been extracted from the exhibition, stripped of aesthetic properties and fixed on Maria Lind as a moral subject who should be held accountable. Gone is the connection between art and politics; gone is the criticism of cultural policy solutions to the funding of contemporary art. What remains are pathetic demands for vacuous obligatory attitudes, disassociation or repudiation, exemplary morality and democratic transparency. As if all of this meant anything – other than a show of morality and a control of our general reverence for morality!
However, in addition to being pathetic, these demands are misdirected. Art critics want Lind to criticize Bukowskis and Lundin Oil – morally – whereas the exhibition criticizes the political policies that encourage and make necessary collaboration between art institutions and ethically despicable companies. It is not in the first instance a criticism against Bukowskis but against the prevailing cultural policies via cooperation with Bukowskis. However, art critics want a statement about Bukowskis; they are pretty convinced that this is ‘institutional critique’; so why isn´t Lind saying anything about Bukowskis? This idea is absurd if one sees an exhibition as an art product: what would be the point of cooperating with someone and then taking a stance towards things that one already knew when initiating the cooperation, namely, that the partner is morally deficient? The project then is not principally about attitudes towards Bukowksis on a moral level, but concerns an artistic and political criticism of cultural politics and policy.
It is impossible for the head of an art institution to ensure that collaboration with business and commercial interests does not involve very dirty money. The head of an art institution cannot have such an overview of market relations, branches of business and conditions of ownership. Since it therefore is practically impossible to protect oneself against unintentional involvements with immoral companies, it may be said that public institutions are encouraged by prevailing politics to work with business interests which morality, if not the law, judges harshly or condemns. It is precisely this that Lind’s exhibition, taken as a whole as an artistic phenomenon, criticizes. We deem this social critique worthwhile or at least worth a serious discussion. But at the moment, it can scarcely enter into the public domain since art has placed itself there, in its exhibition hall, where morality has a place, and where politics is left to placards.
The Tensta exhibition, in its entirety, constitutes a sharp criticism. It may be accused of taking the Devil to the table, but in doing so, it sharpens our consciousness, our awareness, that there are no certain means to avoid dining with the devil if one is forced to work with economic/commercial interests.
And here we approach the difficulties art criticism has with art that works with the political. Such art tries to charge the inevitable human grey zone existing between morality and law, morality and society’s rules of behaviour. In this zone art as itself can be political. But art criticism avoids this zone and consequently, the phenomenon of art disappears leaving some lone person standing and having to take shit because he or she has done, to an extremely limited degree, the exact same thing that we accept on a vast scale. Morally speaking, they may be equally bad even if it would be morally utterly irreproachable to judge Lind as harshly as Lundin Oil. But, who forces art critics to consider what morality is; indeed, what is their competence in the subject? Why not concentrate on the political acts within art instead, decipher the contents, evaluate their criticism within the domain where it is: i.e. the
Sceptics may still doubt that this is the way to view this exhibition. So let us take up another aspect, one that is so absurd that it must be understood as a direct criticism, possibly but not necessarily of Bukowskis but definitely of the system. It may be thought that the ideology of collaboration aims at releasing money from business and industry, that sponsoring will give money to culture. With the Tensta exhibition we see that the system works in the opposite way. Lind has got artists to donate the work for sale; to contribute to Tensta gallery’s economy. But since Bukowskis (the market), in contrast to the artists, is not involved in charitable works but takes a percentage on all sales, the artists not only sponsor Tensta gallery but also Bukowskis. The artists give money to Bukowksis and in extension, to Lundin Oil. Lind can perhaps be faulted for that, but it also illuminates a fault in the cultural political system. And one of the people behind the system shift in Swedish politics is, as Frans Josef Petersson points out in his article (www.kunstkritikk.no), precisely Lind’s partner at Bukowskis, Michael Storåker. Petersson writes:
It is worth noting that Storåker not only represents an economic interest but is also one of the people holding the pen when the Swedish political landscape was re-drawn during the last decade. He is a member of the executive committee of the Conservative Party in Stockholm and as the then chairman of the advertising agency, Storåkers McCann, was responsible for ‘the new labour party’s’ victorious election campaign in 2006.
That artists’ money goes in part to Bukowskis is of course wholly compatible with politics whose highest goal is to stimulate the market at any price. From this perspective there’s nothing wrong at all with it. And it is just this perverse situation that Maria Lind’s exhibition exposes.
It cannot be thought that the connection with Bukowskis is meant as anything other than a criticism of the prevailing cultural politics since it is obviously not in the interest of art to give money to large companies. On the other hand, although Bukowskis takes a percentage, the company gives money to Maria Lind. This actually makes the system even more absurd – that a publicly employed art gallery director should be able to take pecuniary advantage of artists’ work – as part of the job. We understand that Maria Lind can be morally criticized for that. But what criticism is the most interesting here – criticism of Lind or of cultural politics and policies?
The criticism contained in this exhibition at Tensta happens through a political use of art before which art critics are at a loss. It’s not at all about an immanent institutional critical curating since it is not Bukowskis which is being criticized but cultural policies. This is done by working with Bukowskis. Instead of the immanence of institutions, this exhibition has direct contact with something outside – in this case, cultural policy. That the exhibition’s criticism is not comprehended constitutes a very large problem for our public sphere, which instead of discussing socially critical art, seeks for individuals who can draw ethical lines of demarcation. Too bad for art criticism. But even worse for art and the public domain, which is witnessing its latitude for criticism and for action shrunk and crippled by moralism.Miscellaneous / tsnoK /