An Anatomy of Power

Nicolas Bourriaud discusses ArtReview’s Power 100, from the November 2013 issue

In French, the English word ‘power’ can only really be translated by referring to two quite distinct terms: the first is pouvoir, that’s to say the potential for action associated with a position or a function. This is the world of the capacity for doing, of commanding or directing. The other term, puissance, might be defined as the force or the intensity of a being or phenomenon. 

The writings of Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze could, in fact, be read as long commentaries on this distinction between power/pouvoir and power/puissance: Foucault questioned the forms of pouvoir that framed human actions, while Deleuze, the vitalist philosopher, examined individual puissance – the productive and energetic potential of individuals and social groups. 

The evolution of the artworld, the fashions or the slow movements that shape it, necessarily modify our conception of power

Suffice to say that this dichotomy sprang immediately to mind when ArtReview asked me to comment on the Power 100 list: have these 100 individuals been chosen for their puissance, or their pouvoir? Is it a question of their professional function within the system, or the intrinsic force that they bring to it to make it evolve? Looking carefully at the list from previous years, it seems clear that both these criteria cohabit harmoniously. But it would, for example, be a caricature to think that artists should necessarily find themselves on the side of power as puissance, while directors of big art institutions should always be on the side of power as pouvoir.

The evolution of the artworld, the fashions or the slow movements that shape it, necessarily modify our conception of power. Since the beginning of the Power 100 list, we have seen the figure of the curator, the collector, the art-fair director and the art adviser gain importance relative to museum directors, gallerists and artists – the old three-way conversation that once structured the art ecosystem. This ecosystem has been reorganising itself according to decision-making structures, and it is economic puissance that now prevails in an ecosystem that is in the process of industrialising, and which little by little is submerging smaller pouvoirs defined by professional positions and status. 

the world of art increasingly resembles the world of cinema, albeit without a ‘Hollywood’ to act as its definitive centre

In short, the world of art increasingly resembles the world of cinema, albeit without a ‘Hollywood’ to act as its definitive centre. The particularity of this new artworld system is its planetary horizontality, punctuated by economic peaks (New York, London), mountainous studio regions (Berlin), consumer outcrops (Moscow, Beijing, the luxury goods industry) and other promontories

the art
market consists mostly of rumours 
and insider trading, allowing for
 big doses of sheer enthusiasm and 
irrational behaviour

There are very few professional
 thinkers in this year’s list, even though
the 2012 edition included Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek. We might therefore note that the theoretical production that irrigates the artworld comes from other professional fields, particularly that of the university. Neither of these philosophers, for that matter, has made art the centre of his work, and we might argue that they were both co-opted by a field of activity that was not a key concern of theirs at the outset. But there is no denying that art has today become an important sounding board for ideas, the space in which they acquire an unparalleled visibility and operational power. 

Who knew Rancière before his works had been relayed by the milieu of the artworld, except for specialists in Continental philosophy? It’s in the interzone that has emerged between the academic world and the artworld that the public reach of an idea is henceforth determined. Boris Groys has made a decisive step in this regard, by exhibiting his video montages in a number of biennials. The pouvoir of the artworld is such that it seems able to harbour every other field of creative activity within the frame of the exhibition, as well as through its own commercial systems: one day it might be philosophy, politics or cinema, the next day it could be gastronomy (Ferran Adrià, who has already had an exhibition at London’s Somerset House this year, will be exhibiting at New York’s Drawing Center next) or literature... 

the Power 100 list has confirmed over the last decade the structural disappearance of the art critic

No doubt this is the effect of the artworld’s economic model – far simpler and more direct than cinema, and more energetic and exciting than the other arts, since it is based on relationships between individuals: in contrast to the stockmarket, which 
has hit those individuals hard, the art
market consists mostly of rumours 
and insider trading, allowing for
 big doses of sheer enthusiasm and 
irrational behaviour.

But Rancière, Žižek or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have no other power over the artworld than their intellectual – therefore indirect – influence. In a way, the Power 100 list has confirmed over the last decade the structural disappearance of the art critic. Nevertheless, if we take the 2012 list, this suggestion might be refuted by the presence of Carolyn Christov-Bagarkiev at number one, a curator whose activity rests on sound intellectual grounds.

Similarly, one finds Beatrix Ruf, Massimiliano Gioni, Chus Martínez, Adriano Pedrosa and Hans Ulrich Obrist on last year’s list: but none of these, even if they produce critical positions, could be defined as theoreticians, in contrast to historical figures such as Clement Greenberg, Pierre Restany or Harald Szeemann, or, more recently, Germano Celant, figures for whom theoretical activity was inseparable from exhibition-making. 

There are now few individuals left for whom the exercise of theory remains inseparable from curating, without being subordinated to it. There are even fewer figures (my mental list shrinks here to Daniel Birnbaum, Okwui Enwezor, Maria Lind and myself) who conceive exhibitions at the same time as running institutions. Beneath the surface of an apparently diverse mixing of roles, the artworld remains a relatively demarcated professional milieu, and the criteria of institutional power used in the Power 100 list privileges those who identify themselves strongly with a clearly determined and defined institutional function.

art school can become a major player in the international artworld

Nevertheless, the Power 100 list each year remains subject to the vagaries of the moment, in the journalistic sense, and the logic of the event is in its DNA: rare are those who read their names in the list each year without having done something special. These figures operate in a regime of power that no longer needs to realise itself in an event –here Nicholas Serota, like François Pinault, appears immovable – though their ranking shifts according to the annual artworld weather. Then there are the ‘guests of honour’ – more fragile positions: the curators of the big biennials of the year, or of Documenta, for example. Following them, the shooting stars: last year Pussy Riot or Ai Weiwei, heroes of current political events, whose presence in the list signifies also the list’s support for them. And lastly, the latest buzz of the moment, which constitutes a form of considerable power in an environment as ‘viral’ as ours.


All that leaves is for me to note the almost total absence of another sector of activity: education. Despite the growing power of education’s transmitter role within the artworld – a power that came to be defined, five or six years ago, under the heading ‘the educational turn’ – art schools too often disappear into the monoliths of the university system, struggling to gain a visibility of their own. My belief is that the art school can become a major player in the international artworld, on the condition that it moves towards the model of the art centre, placing art and artists at its heart, by opening itself up further. 

a school should become the first agent, as well as the first collector of its graduates

Since I took over as the director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in December 2011, the school has been transformed into an art complex oriented towards education, equipped with a building dedicated to exhibitions (the Palais des Beaux-Arts), a publishing house and the strength of a historical collection of more than 100,000 artworks, a collection that we have this year decided to return to active acquisition: a school should become the first agent, as well as the first collector of its graduates, projecting itself to the outside world through exhibitions and by curator-led projects. 

Our graduate show is thus curated this year by Gunnar Kvaran, and will from now on be staged in a different venue each year. It remains for art centre-schools to crystallise a formula that has yet to be defined as such. It is the mission of Frankfurt’s Städelschuleand its PortikusHamburg’s HFBKCalArtsNice’s Villa Arson and Paris’s Beaux-Arts to become the figureheads of an international network that does not yet exist. Power, it turns out, is sometimes simply a question of visibility...

Nicolas Bourriaud is director of the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.