The Nicolas Bourriaud curated Tate Triennial, Altermodern, has been generating plenty of discussion – much of it negative. I’m the first to get grumpy with contemporary art, but to my surprise I enjoyed a lot of the Tate’s exhibition. Much of the criticism, such as Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the Times, Jackie Wullschager in the FT and Waldemar Janusczek in the Sunday Times, has been pitched very much against the artists’ and Bourriaud’s use of theory. In one sense one should be used to this with the mainstream press – they’ve always been scared of intellectuals that go beyond the merely middlebrow. But surely their art critics should be obliged to be at least a little up-to-date with the cutting edge in contemporary thought? Doesn’t that kind of come with the job description?

In this context, the latest issue of Art Monthly (February 09; nothing available to read online, I’m afraid) is to be recommended, with no less than three excellent pieces that amount to a critical engagement with the issues surrounding the Tate’s Altermodern. There’s a wonderful interview with radical artist Francis Alys (not at the Tate, but one who could be indicated as an exemplary practitioner of Bourriaud’s earlier headline concept, Relational Aesthetics); a great piece by Dave Beech on the possibilities for critical art after Postmodernism, where he tackles Bourriaud’s concept of the Altermodern within a historical and theoretical context; and finally Maya and Reuben Fowkes on the relationship between art and theory, where they explore a curator’s relationship to art theory and how it can be used and abused.

Readers Comments

  1. A little unfair, I think. Janusczek, for example, may have a self-regarding tone, but his criticisms have some validity. In part, he echoes some of the concerns that underlay Alan Sokal’s 1996 Social Text hoax – that the language of much ‘cutting edge contemporary thought’ is at best muddled, at worst literally meaningless. Although the manner of Sokal’s hoax and the extent of his later criticism was rightly questioned, some commentators, such as the LRB’s John Sturrock, were candid enough to admit that they had some basis in truth (giving as an example the LRB’s refusal to publish a particularly unintelligible article by Jacques Lacan, despite his considerable standing). I would contest that ‘Bourriaud’s use of theory’ is not entirely immune to the charge of specious or nonsensical philosophising, and that to answer the criticism of Janusczek et al with accusations of being scared or out of touch seems to be forcing the argument.

  2. Hi Neil

    Thanks for your comment. While one might disagree with Bourriaud's argument I think it's pretty coherent, from what I've read. My exasperation comes from the mainstream media's patronising tone when it comes to discussing thinkers who utilise the continental tradition. If they engaged with the thought and critiqued it then fine, but the world weary rolling of eyes about jargon one sees all too often is just a cop out.

    Also, whether one likes it or not, it's the writings of people such as Bourriaud and Rancière that are at the forefront of the discussion in contemporary art. It's their work that is suggesting the directions and debates that are resulting in much of the work we currently see at the many Biennials and shows. So I think that a person whose job is 'Art Critic' is obliged to know their way around this work and be able communicate its content to a broader audience - even if it's too finally disagree with it.

    So why don't they?

  3. I can't agree that Bourriaud's arguments are ever particularly coherent. The post-war continental tradition of the Tel Quel group and others was and is capable of much clearer expression than Bourriaud is. As it happens, I find some of his ideas very interesting and relevant, but his delivery poor.
    You are right to say that the mainstream media has long patronised postmodern theory (not all of it continental). The Campbell-Johnson and Wullschager reviews were typical, but Janusczek was more precise in his criticisms (particularly his observation regarding the awkward position of the spectator when it comes to time-based media). With some editing, it would have been a perfectly reasonable assessment of the Tate show (even if you didn't agree with it).

  4. I think it's unconvincing to argue that Waldemar's criticisms have validity given that his review is more or less a hysterical dismissal of the show and the work, amplified through his view of the Tate as some kind of machiavellian enterprise. Crucially, he does not substantiate any of his opinions with information. Dan Fox has written an excellent assessment of the broadsheets' negative approach to contemporary art, with particular reference to the Altermodern reviews on the frieze editor's blog:
    To his credit Adrian Searle has responded. It's a really important discussion I think, I hope some of the editors and writers read it.

  5. Hysteria there is in Janusczek’s piece, and plenty of it, but he does substantiate some of his criticisms. He explains in some detail how difficult it is to engage with lengthy film/video works, making it almost impossible to (in Bourriaud’s own terms) ‘complete’ the work. And while there is no need for him to call Bourriaud names, it is not unreasonable to question his language, which is sloppily conceived. An example from the Altermodern manifesto - ‘Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation’. But multiculturalism and creolisation are concepts that require the concept of identity (of the group or of the individual) in order to have any meaning. And so on. I don’t agree with the tone that these reviewers have taken, nor with all their criticisms, but I suppose my original point was really that in accusing them of being ‘scared’, Wilson himself was arguing ad hominem and not attending to the very real criticisms that lay under all the mud-flinging.

  6. Hi John and Neil

    Thanks for the comments and thanks for the link to the Frieze discussion. A good piece by Dan Fox and great to get an insight from Adrian Searle about the pressures on the reviewers.

    Interestingly, Dan flags up this issue of the media being scared. He says:

    "Skepticism towards ‘big ideas’ can, in some cases, be evidence of a healthy and down-to-earth pragmatism. The flipside, however, is a paranoia about pretension – an anti-intellectual fear of somehow being ‘caught out’ by ‘big ideas’ if, at a later date, they are demonstrated to be worthless."

    This fear of intellectuals is a particularly British cultural experience - we don't like 'em too clever! But I would argue that there is also a fear of intellectuals in the press in terms of the media's terror of the switch off, or the channel hop. You know the kind of thing: 'if we linger on this guy talking for too long without flashing graphics, etc then we might lose the fleeting interest of our micro-attention span public!' Similarly in newspapers, most discussion of thinkers, musicians and artists is levelled at biography rather than ideas. Or the critic will often tell us how they feel about a work rather than substantiating what they think about it.

    Neil: Re: engaging with lengthy film works I don't see the problem. Get there earlier, stay longer or, as I did, return to the exhibition another day.

  7. And bring a chair, I guess.

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