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Living with Contradictions: The Resignation of Chris Gilbert

The resignation of Chris Gilbert from his post at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in May last year provoked an anxious flurry of reflection…

The resignation of Chris Gilbert from his post at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in May last year – in response to an attempt to mute his curatorial expression of solidarity with the ‘revolutionary Bolivarian process’ in Venezuela – provoked an anxious flurry of reflection (and not a little bemusement)on the activist side of the art world. For the statement that accompanied it personalised the age-old issue of art-institutional complicity with established social powers in a confrontational and politically purist manner, at a time when it is harder than ever to believe in the progressive potential of US institutions.

Everywhere the booming art market – exploding post-1989 as a haven for newly accumulated capital across the globe – has inscribed art institutions more and more deeply into the transnational circuits of capital. At the same time, the increased utilisation of culture as a political resource has integrated these institutions further into both national and international political systems and strategies of regional development, in particular. For all the reasoned reservations about the ‘naïve’ and ‘dogmatic’, self-aggrandising political moralism of Gilbert’s ‘Statement on Resigning’, its effect on art activists was thus nonetheless palpable. 01 There is no good conscience to be had in art institutions – or any other institutions, for that matter. But then conscience is not exactly the issue, politically or analytically, when it comes to the relationship of the institutions of contemporary art to politics; any more than revolution is. Gilbert’s statement was pitched at the politically phantasmatic level of world history: ‘bringing down the US government and its imperialist system’. Hence the comedy of the gulf between it and the event it marked – an individual’s resignation from a post curating contemporary art. As such, it has little to tell us about the possibilities for politically critical practice in the art world. After all, Gilbert in fact did realise the first two of the five parts of his project ‘Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process’ at Berkeley – with its introductory text panel expressing ‘solidarity with the revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela’ intact – albeit with predictable resistances and tensions. He also subsequently co-curated ‘Exhibiting US Imperialism and War’, as the Latin American section of the 2006 Gwangju Biennale, with gratifyingly inflammatory results. 02 The critical issue raised by his resignation is thus less the one flagged by Gilbert himself (the class interests of museums) than (given those interests) how it is possible for projects like these to be actualised; and what, if anything, it has to tell us about the politics of curation of contemporary art.

It is not so much the resistance of the institutions of contemporary art to anti-capitalist politics which is remarkable as their current enthusiasm for exhibiting its representational forms. Gilbert’s ‘Now-Time’ shows were part of a recent curatorial boom in ‘political’ exhibitions. Most of these have been backward looking, focusing on the 1960s and 70s, and many have taken a strongly historicist, if not nostalgic form – feeding the historicist academicism (and pseudo-radicalism) of a certain trend among younger artists.03 Yet some have conveyed significant political actualities. And all have generated at least some contradictory effects. To understand what is going on here, beyond the particularities of each instance, requires a consideration of some of the conditions that structure the production and display of contemporary art. One of the most striking things about Gilbert’s statement and letter is that, despite his Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, he appears to have little sense of the way in which social processes can turn things into their opposites.

Three conditions in particular seem relevant: the integration of autonomous art into the culture industry; the state of institutional critique; and the displacement of left theoretical and political discourses into art spaces. Together they suggest an increasingly contradictory role for curatorial presentations of political representations. It is a distinctive feature of the main institutional sites of contemporary art that they are part of a transnational culture industry: an art industry. This belies the classical opposition of the culture industry to autonomous art. However, it should not be taken to mark the dissolution of the antagonism to which that opposition gave expression. It does not mean that there is no longer any autonomous art, or that the individuality of the autonomous work’s ‘law of form’ is no longer in contradiction to the logics of administration and capitalist production. Rather, it registers the fact that the terms and conditions of this contradiction have mutated in complex ways. It is now expressed more directly within each of Adorno’s ‘torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up’ – ‘the dialectic of the lowest’ and ‘the dialectic of the highest’ art forms – than as an opposition between them. 04

This is consistent with the fact that Adorno’s formulation of the difference between the culture industry and autonomous art was always internal to the social form of the commodity. It was never an external opposition between autonomy and commodity form. Commodification is the historical condition of autonomy. Autonomy was never the given of a particular cultural sphere, it was always the achievement of works which were sufficiently independent in their production of form to resist over-determination by the commodity character of their distribution form, or any other type of direct social use – such as religion or politics.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, whereas the culture industry involved what Marx called the ‘real subsumption’ of culture to the production of value, autonomous art involved only its ‘formal’ subsumption, that is, its subsumption at the level of exchange. 05 This explains the peculiarity of the autonomous work of art as a commodity that, in certain respects, resists its own commodity status, albeit via its absolutisation of one aspect of the commodity form: its character as a fetish, which is essential to its illusion of autonomous meaning-production.06 This is the dialectic that Adorno most prized: art ‘resists’ its own commodified form to the extent to which it successfully absolutises the most mystical aspect of that form, its illusory fetish-character.

It is common to conceive the integration of art institutions into the culture industry in terms of a transition from formal to real subsumption, of the kind Marx associated with the development of capitalism in general, and hence as the ‘end of art’ of an autonomous kind. This fits in with both Adorno’s own pessimism about the ‘liquidation’ of art and currently fashionable theories of the real subsumption of the social, per se, in an informational capitalist economy. 07 However, given the abiding individuality of artistic production and its correspondingly ‘petty commodity’ character, it is more plausible to think of art’s integration into the culture industry in terms of a change in the character of its formal subsumption, as a result of changes in the political economy and technologies of cultural production more generally. For example, there is both a greater differentiation of market sectors and a greater integration of cultural functions (art, fashion, mass culture, advertising, design, tourism) within the cultural industry than hitherto. Autonomous art clearly functions, structurally, as research and development for other branches of the culture industry; it is analagous to the way in which formal experimentation was conceived as laboratory work within late Soviet constructivism. This is one systemic functionalisation of autonomous art within the culture industry. While it has certainly changed the conditions of artistic production, it has not negated the possibility of autonomous works. On the contrary, it aspires to them. (Autonomy obtains only at the level of the individual work; functionalisation at the level of whole.)

What was previously largely an external relation of appropriation between distinct cultural spheres (art and the culture industry) has increasingly become internalised to a more integrated cultural-economic system. The dominant not only appropriates the emergent, it facilitates its production as emergent, as the condition of its appropriation. In this situation, individual works of contemporary art have a tensely dual character: their autonomy must be wrestled from other cultural functions that must nonetheless continue to perform as a condition of their social actuality (exhibition, reproduction, circulation).

A New Kind of Affirmative Culture

One of these functions is legitimation. The systemic functionalisation most directly relevant to curatorial presentations of politics is that of art’s socially affirmative aspect. It is here that the history of institutional critique is of such emblematic significance. The other side of autonomous art’s critical function has always been its relative legitimation of the society in which it exists (and in particular, nowadays, its sponsors). The criticism of society that is, in Adorno’s analysis, inherent in the very existence of autonomous art is moderated by this existence itself. 08 The art industry incorporates the affirmative function of autonomy, reflexively, in increasingly sophisticated ways to produce what is effectively a new kind of affirmative culture. Marcuse described affirmative culture as:

That culture of the bourgeois epoch which led in the course of its own
development to the segregation from civilisation of the mental and spiritual
world as an independent realm of value that is considered superior to

Such an independent realm is affirmative because it is ‘compatible with the bad present, despite and within which it can afford happiness’. 09 Autonomous art is the zenith of such culture. However, recognition of this affirmative function (historically coincident with the completion of autonomisation in l’art pour l’art) undermines and discredits the autonomy on which it is based. This led, first, to the historical avant-gardes’ assault upon the institutions of autonomous art and, subsequently, after the ‘failure’ of this assault, to the complication of the criteria for the achievement of autonomy. An additional criterion was required: namely, that the work counter the affirmative function of its formal self-sufficiency, internally, by introducing heteronomous or dependent elements – collage was the historical model, followed by the readymade, which subsequently became the paradigm. Critically effective autonomy was to be achieved by the so-called ‘neo-avant-garde’, paradoxically, only by a certain dialectically immanent negation of autonomy, or highlighting of ‘non-art’ elements. This remains a structural feature of the non-organic work. The history of contemporary art is in many ways the history of the expanded integration of previously non-art elements into art, as non-art elements, as conditions of the production of a more complex autonomy.

Politics has always been one paradigm of non-art, or form of dependence, and hence both a threat to and a medium for the achievement of autonomy. (Politics can register autonomy from the economic as well as a resistance to art’s affirmative function.) However, this strategy only works so long as it remains external to the art institution’s dominant conception of art. Once incorporated, it too becomes affirmative of ‘art’, and hence itself prey to a socially affirmative function. This is, famously, what happened to institutional critique and may now be happening to ‘political’ art – or at least, the political curation of art – more generally. Art institutions have become sufficiently self-reflective about the dynamics of autonomy, criticality, affirmation and legitimation to sponsor political criticism of themselves in order to maintain art’s distinctive position within the public sphere (although, of course, this can often be the site of fraught negotiations). Works of institutional critique now mainly function to re-legitimate the institutions they criticise. So, how do curatorial presentations of oppositional political representations fit into this picture? It largely depends upon their relations to political practice.

The deepening integration of autonomous art into the circuits of cultural capital intensifies the ideological need for art institutions to present art as autonomous. Yet its dual character – and the booming market – makes this increasingly difficult. Institutions cannot rely upon the autonomy of individual works. They need to curate autonomy. Currently, and paradoxically, curations of oppositional political representations are one way this can be done, one way the dialectic of criticism and affirmation takes a further turn. Presenting oppositionally political – ‘artless’ – representations through acts of curatorial autonomy confers art status on the material, thereby reviving the institutionally (and by inference, more broadly socially) affirmative function of a critical autonomy. Crudely put, at the level of the system, political curation is a distraction from, and covers over, the real issue: the relentless dominance of the market.

All this is predicated upon the absence of a context of political practice that might give such exhibitions an effective extra-artistic political force. In this respect, these exhibitions are an inversion of the political art of the 1960s and 70s to which they so often refer. Then, it was political movements, via the political organisation of artists, which forced political issues into art. 10 Now, it is largely strategic acts of curatorial will that stage dependence (rhetorical dominance of politics as a non-art element). Crudely put again, the absence of effective oppositional politics today is largely the condition of its art-institutional representation. This is not to deny the critical content of the representations themselves, although this is diminished by their frequent historical distance from the viewer, and the historicist treatment of this distance by curators – just as the impact of more contemporary political work is often diminished by the geo-political distance between its topics and its sites of display.

The shows curated by Chris Gilbert in 2006 are exceptional for their political contemporaneity. Nonetheless, the staging of Venezuela’s ‘revolutionary Bolivarian process’ in Berkeley, and ‘US imperialism and war’ in Korea, were obviously less politically immediate than, for example, the installation of Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Burns) in Buenos Aires in 1968 – although they possessed considerably more political effectivity than the exhibition of the Tucumán Arde Archive in Kassel this summer at documenta 12. The technologies that have rendered the art world a dynamically trans- national space facilitate communication but also can dissipate and negate political effect.

The exhibition of the Tucumán Arde Archive at the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel is a good example of the emblematic political historicism currently coursing through the art world, in the slipstream of more directly political curation (generating a lucrative market in the artistic paraphernalia of the 1960s in its wake). Indeed, as a whole, documenta 12 is exemplary of the new kind of affirmative art culture. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the documenta 12 magazines project, which exploited to the full the displacement of left theoretical and political discourses into art spaces. The magazines project assembled a global network of over ninety independent (mainly left-political) cultural journals, ostensibly as an intellectual resource for reflection on the exhibition’s themes, and an innovative form of cultural collaboration in its own right, but in fact as an exercise in intellectual- political legitimation and cultural-economic exploitation. (No fees were paid for contributions, although Taschen published three large volumes of selected material. Half of the talks programme was then to be filled – again, no fees – by editors from the journals.) This apparently ‘democratic’ franchising of intellectual production turned out to be what the intelligence community call ‘interference’ – a diversion to distract from the deliberate lack of curatorial discourse about the exhibition itself. What looked, at one level, like an interesting (if largely unsuccessful) attempt to set up a dialectic of formalism and political representation, appears at another as a mere manoeuvre designed to fulfil the demands placed by the art world on documenta as a leading site for innovations in the exhibition-form, while covering up the (not uninteresting) traditionalism of the exhibition itself.

Gilbert is no naïf about art institutions. The naivety displayed in his statement and letter is rather a political one: the fantasy of a pure and true, yet worldly, ‘outside’. (This is rendered even less credible by its identification with Hugo Chávez’s populism.) But there is no pure outside from the standpoint of which judgement on contradictory social processes can be pronounced. There are only passing opportunities in the deepening maze of contradictions.

– Peter Osborne


  • See the exchanges between Josie, Pauline, Greg Sholette, Brian Holmes and Sarah Lewison on the metamute website, 31 May-4 August 2006, (last accessed on 14 March 2007); Brian Holmes and Martha Rosler, 30 and 31 May 2006, (last accessed on 14 March 2007); Liam Gillick, ‘Terms of Engagement’, Artforum, September 2006, pp.125-56; Chris Gilbert, Liam Gillick and Renny Pritikin, ‘letters’, Artforum, November 2006, pp.50 and 54. Gilbert’s ‘Statement’ was initially circulated by email and is also on the metamute site.
  • The Art in America review described it as ‘pure hatred, in the form of hysterical railings against capitalism and the United States … artless works served primarily as visual aids to the hortatory wall texts authored by curators…’. Art in America, January 2007, (last accessed on 30 July 2007). On the other hand, Charles Esche thought the way it ‘merged artistic and curatorial authorship … could provide pointers for the future – and the healthy return of ideological argument was tangible’. frieze, no.104, January-February 2007, p.124.
  • This trend seems to have begun in 2005 with ‘Communism’ (Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 20 January-12 March), ‘Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition’ (Kunst-Werke, Berlin, 30 January-16 May) and ‘Populism’ (Vilnius, Oslo, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, April-September). See Marta Kuzma, ‘Art in the Age of its Political Reproduction’, Radical Philosophy, no.132, July/August 2005, pp.54-56. More recently, there was ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, 1965-1980’ (LA MOCA, 4 April-18 June 2007). The 2008 Biennale of Sydney, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is to be entitled ‘Revolution’. The show most emblematic of the academicism and pseudo-radicalism of a new generation of US artists is probably ‘Uncertain States of America’ (Astrup-Fearnley Museum for Modern Art, Oslo, 8 October-11 December 2005; and subsequently, Paris, Reykjavik, Bard College, NY, and the Serpentine Gallery, London).
  • Theodor W. Adorno, letter to Benjamin, 18 March 1936, in T. W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940, Henri Lonitz (ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999, p.130. That each of Adorno’s ‘torn halves’ is itself a dialectic is a much neglected feature of this well-known formulation. The problem with the formulation is that it conflates an inherited, sociological, status-based high/low distinction with Adorno’s own transformation of Kant’s contrast between ‘free’ and ‘adherent’ beauty into a critical distinction between autonomous and heteronomous art. ‘High’ and ‘low’ are misleading descriptions of a dialectical pair actually defined by whether autonomous or heteronomous (dependent) determinations are dominant, respectively. Adorno arrived at this distinction by reading Kant’s aesthetics in terms of his practical philosophy, which revolves around the contrast between autonomous and heteronomous determinations of the will. Adorno’s art theory is thus centred on structures of artistic practice. Its ground is the idea that the work of art is the pseudo-subject of a free praxis.
  • For the distinction between formal and real subsumption, see Karl Marx, ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’, Capital, vol.1, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, Appendix. Horkheimer and Adorno do not explicitly present their account via this distinction; it structures it implicitly. However, they do gloss the term ‘industrialised’ as ‘rigorously subsumed’. Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, p.104. More generally, they use the idea of subsumption to read Marx through Kant, thereby reducing subsumption to the value-form to an instance of the general logic of equivalence of an instrumental rationality that also – indeed, primarily – characterises administration. Hence the running together of economic and political factors that characterises their concept of the culture industry.
  • T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), London: Athlone Press, 1997, p.21.
  • T.W. Adorno, letter to W. Benjamin, 18 March 1936, in T.W. Adorno and W. Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, op. cit., p.128; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, pp.254-59. This is an analytical point at which the politically diametrically opposed trajectories of the first generation of the Frankfurt School and Italian autonomist Marxism appear to converge.
  • T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., pp.89 and 252. This affirmative aspect was of particular ideological significance during the Cold War, and remains a feature of US cultural foreign policy.
  • Herbert Marcuse, ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture'(1937), Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Boston: Beacon Press, 1968, pp.88-133, 95 and 118.
  • See the sections on ‘Politics and Ideology’, in my Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon, 2002, pp.37-42, 148-63 and 252-65.