Custom Made

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Custom Made


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


REMEMBER KING TUT? Some thirty years ago, critics of the art world's institutional workings ominously forewarned that the rise of the blockbuster exhibition--the showcase designed for mass appeal, able to draw immense throngs into the gilded tombs of history by taking up such iconic subjects as the ancient Egyptian ruler or Impressionism--would be attended by the dilution of historical discourse and the artistic community's public sphere. After all, how could a meaningful, nuanced synthetic analysis of often profoundly ambiguous contemporary concerns take place when exhibition spaces were increasingly devoted to artists (if not to pharaohs) with the kind of name recognition more typically associated with the most popular commercial brands? Following the logic of a mass-production economy based on volume, the institutions of art--whose success would soon come to be measured almost exclusively in terms of audience size--were obviously becoming the instrument of powerful economic forces already dominating the culture at large.

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Such a protest might seem quaint to us, if only it hadn't been so prophetic--and, indeed, today's museum requires massive attendance figures just to cover operating costs. So we would do well to look once again at the art world's frequent mirroring of mass commerce, particularly in light of the explosion of popular interest in contemporary art during the past ten years. (Let's set aside for a moment the question of whether art's public sphere has gone the way of the pyramids.) For with this radical expansion, contemporary art has seemed to follow a shift in the general culture from an economy of scale to one steeped in customization (or at least the illusion thereof). Even the most cursory look at the art world now--or at the copious advertisements cradling this editor's letter--will glean a cornucopia of artistic approaches manifested in a diverse assortment of forms, media, and disciplines, wherein every practice (and all dialogue around it) unavoidably risks becoming yet another niche market among many.

To say this might seem at first merely to argue that our day has seen an extension of the pluralism of the late '80s and early '90s, when the coexistence of parallel or divergent artistic strategies in contemporary art suggested there was no single coherent historical strand or trajectory to which artists, critics, curators, or collectors must necessarily respond. With contemporary art's ever-widening circle, in other words, an array of artistic practices became fiscally sustainable as so many fields of "interest"--and to each his or her own taste. True enough. Of deeper consequence, however, are the various ways in which art as a critical enterprise begins to signify within this expanded field of taste, performing itself for knowing audiences, always signaling, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, its outsider (or cultish) status. It fulfills and affirms the expectations and biases of its viewership, matching the contours of "art" within the broader terrain of mass commerce, where the unique, transformative experience--formerly the purview of art alone--is given primacy. (Note in this regard how art fairs have begun mimicking biennials.) Following in the footsteps of so many subcultures of the twentieth century, then, the criticality of artistic practices typically registers less as subversion than as difference--something that operates less in terms of effect than affect, or style. And with its increasingly customized appeal, art becomes the redundant image, even the advertisement, of itself.

Of course, I write this letter in part because the same logic applies to this magazine, whose very purpose is supposedly to render such redundancy more visible, unfolding its implications not only for artistic production but also for art's relationship with the culture at large. …

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