Art & Philosophy: Or How Philosophers Got Curated by Maja and Reuben Fowkes

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THE TRADITIONAL ANTAGONISM BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY AND ART, which goes back to Plato's infamous eviction of artists from his ideal state for distracting citizens from the higher truths of philosophy, is offset by a mutual fascination that is becoming ever more noticeable. That we are going through a phase of intense attraction and interaction between the old rivals is affirmed by the Map of Friendship between Art and Philosophy, which was produced jointly by artist Thomas Hirschhorn and philosopher Marcus Steinweg as a centre spread for Le Monde Diplomatique in 2007. Commissioned as one of the 'Utopia Stations' that grew out of a curatorial project initiated at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the map depicts the conceptual common ground between art and philosophy. Shared notions, such as universality, resistance, autonomy and love are marked in red, while deleted concepts, including honour, harmony, identity and individualism, are shown in blue, with the friendship confirmed by a slightly ironic comradely handshake at the centre. Another map, as yet uncharted, could trace the trajectories of leading contemporary philosophers through their appearances in museums, biennales, art fairs, art magazines, catalogues and art conferences. There is ample data for such an undertaking, with Giorgio Agamben speaking at the Moscow Biennial, Jacques Ranciere at Frieze Art Fair, Antonio Negri at Tate, Chantal Mouffe at Van Abbe Museum, Slavoj Zizek at the ICA, and the list could go on. Arguably the involvement of philosophers with contemporary art has changed, and goes beyond the use of theories to explicate particular art movements, as in the regular invocation of Jean Baudrillard's concepts of hyperreality and simulacra to justify the work of the New York appropriationists in the 80s or, conversely, the use of art works by philosophers to illustrate their theories, such as Jacques Derrida's legendary deconstruction of Van Gogh's boots in The Truth in Painting, published in 1987.

So, what are the reasons for the proliferation of philosophers in the world of contemporary art? Is it because their theories are so relevant for the production, distribution and reception of contemporary art? Is it because of their own fascination with the autonomy of art, which has the potential to create spaces for radical experiment and critique? Have philosophers overtaken the role of art critics in providing legitimation for the mechanisms and structures of the art world? Or, did they simply get curated?

The latest philosophical trends swiftly filter through to exhibition practice, as curators continuously search for the most recent ideas to underscore the contemporaneity of their shows. The transfer of philosophical concepts into an exhibition context can result in distortion of the original theories, as they are simplified to fit the format of the press release and stretched to encompass the diversity of artistic approaches. Such was arguably the case with the last Documenta, the conceptual framework of which was conveyed by three short questions: 'Is Modernity our Antiquity?', 'What is Bare Life?', and 'What is to be Done?'. The second question evidently derived from Italian philosopher Agamben's writings, and specifically his highly influential Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life of 1998, although there was no direct attribution. Agamben's theory, which deals with the biopolitical intrusions of the modern state, was given an alternative, depoliticised twist by the curators; they widened the original notion, which they dismissively referred to as the 'obvious political dimension of torture and concentration camps' to include the 'lyrical or ecstatic dimension' and 'infinite pleasure'.

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The last Istanbul Biennial, entitled 'Optimism in the Age of Global War' (see Review AM310), also drew closely on a paradigm borrowed from philosophy. In this case, the curatorial framework rested on theoretical discourses around the anti-globalisation movement and specifically Negri's notion of the postmodern and post-Fordist revolutionary Multitude. …