Follow the money

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. AR April 2019 Feature
Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. AR April 2019 Feature

How art gets tangled in the web of interests that sustain the artworld – political, economic and ideological – has been Andrea Fraser’s subject over a thirty-year career. Her performance-based works have confronted issues including the privileging role of the museum, the power of the art market and how artists become complicit in reinforcing the idea of art’s special cultural status. Fraser’s long engagement with these problems in many ways anticipated the growing attention paid to how power and influence now operates in the artworld. ArtReview asked her about art, power and patronage after Donald Trump…

ArtReview Your work has often focused on the way in which the art ‘institution’ tends to promote the various changing discourses of art’s (and the artist’s) freedom and autonomy, while suppressing its implication in economic and political interests. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of your performance Museum Highlights, which took apart the connections between the ideology of cultural philanthropy, political power and economic interest. It’s seen today as a key work of ‘institutional critique’. How have you seen the place of art in relation to the interests of power and wealth change in the intervening three decades – in the era of the rise of the mega-museum and the globalised art market?

Andrea Fraser I understand the institution of art, in [Pierre] Bourdieu’s terms, as a relatively autonomous social field – that is, autonomous relative to other social fields to the extent that it can impose its own values, norms and constraints within its boundaries. Historically, that autonomy was often identified with the rejection of the norms and values of political and economic fields,. What we have seen over the past few decades is the erosion of that autonomy as market values increasingly overtake values that might be described as specifically artistic. This is not just a matter of mega-museums or any other art ‘institutions’ in the narrow sense. At this point, one sees virtually no resistance to the market or market values among artists and critics in the mainstream artworld, beyond purely discursive formulations of ‘critique’ that are never applied to the economic conditions of the artworks they are evoked to justify. Artistic success has become increasingly identified with market success.

AR Would you say that it’s been too easy for ‘critique’ to end up a commodity? If I’m being pessimistic, there was always a risk that critical art practice could be contained for as long as it ignored the limits of its own field. And, perhaps, there’s the question of why so many should abandon that resistance to the market…

AF One of the fundamental premises of institutional critique as I understand it is that the effectiveness of critique is always limited to a particular moment of intervention. Beyond that moment, it always must be rethought and renewed. If critique is to remain critique, critique itself must be subject to continual critique. But by the same token, totalising critiques of critique as commodified – or co-opted or contained – fail to meet that standard of specificity. Most often they appear to me as excuses for a lack of rigour and a lack of reflexivity, and as symptoms of a conflicted investment in critique or its object.

I’ve written about how what we take as critical negation in art discourse often function as defensive negation in a psychoanalytic sense: a way of distancing and disowning the parts of our own practices, interests and institutions we judge as bad, which also enables us to persist in them. That’s why I increasingly see critique as only a first step, and certainly not an end in itself. It must be pursued with a concrete vision of change, which must necessarily include a change in our own investments, both financial and affective, in the structures we judge as bad.

I don’t think that many of the museum trustees who supported the party of Trump ascribe to the racist, misogynist and homophobic politics that brought them to power. I think they are willing to overlook the evils of these politics because these politicians serve their economic interests

AR There’s a new urgency in your recent work, since Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Last year you published 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, a monumental piece of data research listing all the reported political contributions made by the trustees of 128 museums across the US during the 2016 US election cycle and its aftermath. In analysing the data, you note that many art galleries and museums, even those in ‘left-leaning’ states, have trustees who lean politically to the right, including many who support politicians with radical rightwing agendas. Maybe this requires too much speculation, but I wanted to ask you: why do think such trustees would support both rightwing politicians and a cultural sector that – ostensibly – tends towards the ‘progressive’, left or liberal side of politics?

AF Just after the election a museum director told me that she knew a number of art patrons who voted for Trump for one reason: they thought he would lower their taxes. They might even have persuaded themselves that this is a good thing for art and the institutions they support: it leaves them more money to spend on art and give to museums. I would not be surprised to find art dealers, museum directors and fundraisers who agree. This is the cynical calculation of plutocratic elites and those who depend on them. As I write in my introduction to 2016, I don’t think that many of the museum trustees who supported Trump and the party of Trump ascribe to the racist, xenophobic, misogynist and homophobic politics that brought them to power. I think they are willing to overlook the evils of these politics because these politicians serve their economic interests. Their philanthropic activities may help them to justify those economic interests as somehow compensating for those political evils. However, I think that many of these trustees probably do share with rightwing politicians a fundamentally antidemocratic, if not autocratic, sense of their own right to power and privilege. This sense also may be bolstered by their roles in philanthropic institutions, which are not remotely democratic and where their support is secured, in part, by flattering their ‘visionary leadership’ and so on.

AR One of your key themes is that of complicity (and in some sense self-delusion) among those who work in the art field. Your essay ‘Towards a Reflexive Resistance’, published last year, took on the issue of how those working in the artworld and others with access to significant ‘cultural capital’, often associated with education, are blind to the privilege that accrues from this, since they often see themselves as acting in political opposition to the more dominant forms of economic privilege. As a consequence, they have fallen into the trap of dismissing the ‘populist’ reaction as that of the ‘irrational’ voter, in contrast to their own ‘rational’ take on things. It seems to suggest an element of estrangement among the liberal and left-leaning artworld constituency towards those attitudes and constituencies who don’t share their cultural outlook. You’ve written that ‘the most culturally dominated members of society may see these struggles for what they often are: competition for power among the powerful from which they are excluded.’ Do you see that there’s any way through this?

AF I try to avoid terms like ‘complicity’ or ‘self-delusion’. They suggest that the problem is one of moral or ethical failing, or of another kind of irrationality. I think the blindness of intellectuals to the power of cultural capital is more fundamental than that. It is fundamental to our belief in the political right of our own fields and in our own meritorious right to our relative privileges. To the extent that cultural capital can be wielded to contest other forms of domination, its power can indeed serve some of the progressive aims espoused in the art field, as it has in struggles over identity-based and colonial domination. But to the extent that cultural capital is allied with economic capital in the art market and in plutocratic philanthropic institutions, it serves to shore up the power of economic capital, not contest it, including by identifying economic power and privilege with those progressive aims. In these institutions, cultural domination becomes increasingly identified with identity-based domination and divorced from economic domination, and with that, from any association with social class, whether defined in terms of economic or cultural capital.

As an intellectual, I guess I am disposed to imagine that critical analysis can help get us out of this, especially a reflexive analysis of class, which has all but disappeared from art discourse. But it will take much more than that. It will require that holders of cultural capital break out of their dependence on holders of economic capital in the art market and philanthropic institutions and redefine their interests to ally themselves with the economically as well as culturally dominated.

AR Why do you think that an awareness of economic domination and cultural domination have become so ‘out of sync’, so to speak? Were artists ever so securely allied to the economically dominated?

AF No, not securely. In Bourdieu’s analysis, such alliances mostly have been based on what he describes as homologies of position across radically different and even opposing social conditions. To the extent that the cultural power held by artists and intellectuals is dominated by economic power, they may share an experience of economic domination, and a resentment of economic power, with those who are both economically and culturally dominated. But identifications based on such homologies are often superficial and transitory. The real secret to most instances of institutional ‘co-optation’ is that the radical positions sometimes taken by young artists are mostly rooted in exclusions and impoverishments related to a particular stage in a career trajectory. If they achieve success, these positions become increasingly symbolic and divorced from their social and material conditions. If they don’t achieve success, they lose their voice in the field and capacity to contest its values. The massive influx of wealth into the art field in the past few decades and other structural changes, like increasingly expensive and privatised art education, have identified artistic success with art market success to such a degree that even temporary and symbolic alliances with economic struggles became rare. However, we may be seeing some shift now. As more and more artists and intellectuals, even established ones, are recognising themselves as members of the debt-entrapped precariat, we are seeing more and more labour organising in higher education and museum and even among artists with initiatives like W.A.G.E.

AR Discussing 2016 in recent interviews, you’ve speculated on alternatives in institutions whose governance is skewed by big financial interests – for boards to take on artist trustees, community representatives and people of colour, and for more fundamentally different constitutional models for arts organisations. But you seem sceptical about how much this can achieve. Is there an inexorable pressure in the financial lures of big patronage – among curators, directors and artists? Are we all ‘part of the system’? If so, where’s the scope for agency?

AF I finished my research for 2016 with one basic recommendation: create a clear boundary between patronage and governance in nonprofit organisations, first of all by eliminating personal financial-contribution requirements for board service. I found studies indicating that over 75 percent of all nonprofit organisations in the US require personal financial contributions from board members. At the largest art museums this can be as much as $10 million to join and $250,000 annually. This basically renders nonprofit governance ‘pay-to-play’. In all but the smallest organisations, this system also renders nonprofit governance fundamentally plutocratic, as only the very wealthy can afford to pay board dues. It also tends to limit racial and ethnic diversity on museum boards. In any other arena, this kind of system would be called corrupt. Nevertheless, it has been completely normalised in the nonprofit sector, which I believe also contributes to its normalisation in the public sector. 

The problem is that, in the absence of public funding, most museums in the US rely on board dues for a significant portion of their budgets. At many museums, these dues are virtually the only reliable source of revenues. So before museums can even start to consider that kind of shift, they have to completely rethink their financial structure. They either have to develop other sources of revenue or dramatically cut costs. There might be a third option, which would be to eliminate the financial-contribution requirement and diversify their governing boards while creating other patron groups without a role in governance. I think that would be feasible, given that board service really is a chore and that many museums now offer perks to nonboard patron groups that are similar to those offered board members.

However, the problem of plutocracy in the nonprofit sector is not only a problem of the influence of wealthy pay-to-play patrons, but also of a total lack of democratic process outside of internal voting by self-selected and self-perpetuating boards. To address that, museum must democratise, for example, by creating elected staff councils and artist councils with board representation to participate in governance.

But, as you suggest, artists, curators and museum directors also play a role in maintaining this system. In the US we talk about the ‘donor class’ of wealthy political contributors, which my book reveals are also contributors to cultural nonprofits. But the power of this donor class depends on their influence among what I call the donee class of political and nonprofit professionals who are constantly asking them for money. In the art field, it is important to stress that this system was put into place, to a large extent, not by wealthy art patrons, but by museum and art professionals who have seen government and public funding, and even democratic process itself, as a larger threat to their autonomy than the influence of wealthy patrons. In many ways, it is convenient for museum professionals to have a patron board with a primarily financial role, just as it is convenient for artists to have wealthy patrons. The most fundamental structural challenge is the fact that the enormous global expansion of the art field in the past decades was enabled by the massive influx of highly concentrated private wealth. The artworld is not sustainable at its current scale without that wealth and would not be even if public funding were restored to peak, postwar and pre-austerity levels.

AR To come back to your point about economics and identity: identity politics now looms large in the debates over the role of cultural institutions in the US, the UK and elsewhere. They seem constantly to be apologising for their shortcomings in not being inclusive or representative enough, or not able to respond to the new ethical demands being made of them. Is there a risk in expecting art and artists and institutions not to have some kind of autonomy – distance, difference – from the political controversies raging outside?

In the art field, it is important to stress that this system was put into place by museum and art professionals who have seen government and public funding, and even democratic process itself, as a larger threat to their autonomy than the influence of wealthy patrons

AF The autonomy of the art field and its participants has only ever been a relative autonomy. It is a historical product of constantly shifting boundaries between the art field and other fields. It has always been partial and deeply contradictory. To a large extend, the sense of autonomy in the art field has depended on the degree to which the interests of artists and other art professionals have been homologous with those of their patrons and consumers, even when they appear to challenge those interests. So, for example, artists and art patrons once shared what Bourdieu called ‘an interest in disinterestedness’, which manifested a homologous negation of economic necessity born of radically different economic conditions but joined in a shared contempt for the petite bourgeoisie. In the postwar era, artists and capitalist democratic states shared an interest in free expression associated with radically different politics, but joined in a common fear of the authoritarian state.

In the last 30 years, from the rise of multiculturalism in the US through the period of globalisation to our current struggle with rightwing populism, artists and other arts professionals, identity-based emancipatory movements and globalised cosmopolitan financial elites all have shared an interest in diversity. While these interests are, again, rooted in radically different agendas, they have in many ways redefined the function and meaning of artistic autonomy as the freedom to contest cultural and identity-based inequities and exclusions. I certainly wouldn’t say that that implies less autonomy than under normative constraints of high modernist aestheticism, which also represented a very specific ethos. What worries me about contemporary identity politics is the tendency to essentialise social identities while at the same time reducing structural inequities to representation and other purely cultural forms. I’m also troubled that the politics of identity-based domination often seem to preclude any recognition of other forms of domination and privilege.

AR Though your criticism is deadly serious, your works often use humour and sex to confront their subject, and gender is an explicit fault-line. The female protagonist is a shape-shifting, self-empowering troublemaker – how might that continue to that work in the wake of #MeToo?

AF I sometimes describe my work as an investigation of what we want from art – ‘we’ being everyone who participates in the art field. At one extreme, that has involved exploring social, economic and political interests, often through research that draws on social science. At the other extreme, it has meant exploring our sometimes very intimate, emotional investments in the field through research that draws on psychoanalysis and group relations, including introspective research into what I myself want from the field. For me, that approach is rooted fundamentally in feminism and feminist investigations of how subjectivity and identity, including gender identity, are formed in social institutions in ways that are deeply invested and infused with desire and enacted in and through fantasy. I remain deeply committed to feminist traditions that insist on the social construction of identity and the fundamental bisexuality of subjectivity, both in terms of gender identity and object choice, as well as on the complexity of desire and sexuality. The #MeToo movement has been built by incredibly courageous women who have succeeded, finally, in starting to change the culture of sexual violence where so many other efforts have failed. That kind of effective mobilisation often requires a certain amount of polarisation, which can be seen in aspects of the representations of gender as well as some of the political positioning around #MeToo. I hope that art can remain a place where we can continue to explore the complexity of gender identity and sexuality. I hope that I can continue to contribute to those feminist traditions.

AR In recent weeks the scandal surrounding the opioid crisis in the US, the place of the drug Oxycontin in that, and the implication of the art philanthropy of the Sackler family (whose wealth has accrued through their ownership of the drug’s parent company, Purdue Pharma) has finally exploded in the UK. Driven in large part by the campaigning of artist Nan Goldin, who threatened to pull an upcoming retrospective from the National Portrait Gallery, it’s led to that gallery turning down previously promised Sackler funds, and now the Tate has declared it won’t seek further funding from the Sacklers. What are your thoughts on this?

AF I have enormous respect for Nan Goldin’s activism on this issue. Not only has she increased public awareness of the corporate criminality that has driven the opioid epidemic in the United States, she also has challenged art institutions to consider where their money comes from. Beyond the Sacklers, art institutions need to develop clear policies on when the political and business activities of patrons and board members undermine their mission and values. The question museum people always ask me is, but where are we supposed to draw the line? The implication is that if they go down that road, they won’t have any patrons or board members left. They would have to cut costs and even downsize, and they remind me that this would hurt artists like me and initiatives like W.A.G.E., which advocates for artists’ fees. In fact, the fundraising priorities of the largest museums in the US are not driven by need, but by the ambitions of top staff with upper six-figure and even seven-figure salaries to pursue starchitect expansion plans and million-dollar acquisitions. So where do they draw the line? Autocrats, kleptocrats and white-collar criminals are welcome, but we draw the line at parties to mass addiction and overdoses? And what about patrons and board members of museums committed to diversity and inclusion who finance radical rightwing ethno-nationalist politicians whose policies directly threaten the missions of the institutions they serve? But we need to ask the same question of artists, who are rarely more particular than museums about their patrons. Where do we draw the line?

2016 in Museums, Money and Politics was published by MIT in 2018. Andrea Fraser will show her 2012 video installation Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK,1972 and present a new performance at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 18 May – 15 September; her work is currently included in Post Institutional Stress Disorder at Kunsthal Aarhus through 3 February 2020

From the April 2019 issue of ArtReview

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