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5. DISSOCIATION: the crisis of artistic identity

This chapter will continue to critique the argument that installation art is intrinsically capable of breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art. The focus will be on the mythologising of artistic identity and the manner in which this creates a schism between works of art and those who view them. The contention here is that artistic identity has been magnified and mystified to the point where the viewer-reader is virtually a nonentity. The fact that installation art is inherently gallery-bound indicates its intimate framing by the institution of fine art with its historically-laden ideology. The concept of artistic identity remains fed by a romantic aesthetics which is out of sync with the mass mediatised world that lies outside the museum.

At first sight the concept of identity might seem to be principally a psychological phenomenon, something inherent in an individual, however, the term also inheres a significantly sociological dimension. The Lacanian mirror stage, for example, is fundamentally a description of the social construction of identity. Through the mirror—or any technology of representation for that matter—we learn to see ourselves as others see us. We learn how to be self-critical by observing how others see us, not simply by how we see ourselves. Introspection without the social mirror is fundamentally self-indulgent. Moreover, the concept of the mirror stage is not simply metaphorical. There is scientific support for the Lacanian mirror stage in the form of the discovery of ‘mirror neurones’.[46]

If we examine the social construction of artistic identity we find a problem which is that the social apparatus—the fine art system—that constructs artistic identity is, for the most part, separated from everyday life. Mass media, not hand-made art, provides the visual culture of the everyday. Art is segregated off into an exclusive ghetto concentrated in major cities such as London, New York, and Berlin. 

In his landmark essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproduction’[47] (orig. 1936) Walter Benjamin notes that the value of a work of fine art is predicated on its uniqueness and originality and an ‘aura’ that stems from ‘cult value’ (Benjamin 1973). Building on Benjamin’s insight we can add that the social value of the work of art is also dependent upon a mythologizing of the artist as creative genius. This mythologizing is fundamentally institutionalised. It is also the case, however, that in modernised fields of cultural production—fields that have been massified—it is the consumer who determines whether the creative practitioner is successful or not. This is what happens in music and literature because they are mass media; indeed, literature was the first mass medium. Fine art on the other hand remains in a pre-industrial phase; and that is absolutely intrinsic to the institutionalised definition of what constitutes a fine artist and a work of art. In consequence the judgment of quality is in the hands of the system that handles the exclusive objects: the fine art system.

Whereas the consumer has some power in terms of determining the success or failure of the creative product in literature, music and the performing arts; in fine art judgements of merit are made within the art system. When the art system allows a particular artist into the canon the average gallery visitor simply takes that judgement as a given, and dutifully visits the sanctum of art to pay homage. 

Benjamin predicted the withering away of the pre-industrial modes of artistic production and an assimilation of art into everyday life. His prediction has proven correct in terms of the explosive growth of mass media but not with regard to fine art. Fine art has not withered away, instead it has flourished within the hothouse that is the commercial gallery and art museum system. The flaw in Benjamin’s argument lies in the fact that he did not factor the art market into his equation.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, avant-gardist art evolved hand in hand with the commercial gallery system. This intimate relationship remains. It is difficult to be a professional artist without a commercial gallery. Historically, one can cite the instances of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin who were unfortunate to be avant-gardist artists at a point in history when the commercial gallery system had not matured sufficiently to appreciate avant-gardist art: Van Gogh died unrecognised aged 37, Gauguin at 55. If  they had lived longer they would have enjoyed the celebration of their work that was afforded to equally revolutionary artists such as Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso who lived into the twentieth century.

Picasso, in particular, was born at exactly the right moment to enjoy the emergence of a more sophisticated commercial gallery system and one can cite his portraits of his dealers Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910, painted in the revolutionary Analytical Cubist method.

If one examines a contemporary canonical artist’s curriculum vitae,[48] it is possible to trace their career progress and discover that making a name in the art system hinges on the quality of the galleries and exhibitions the artist has been associated with: the better the gallery, the better the artist. Such observation substantiates the contention that it is the art system that determines the success of the artist and we as consumers tend to accept the list of names provided to us by the art system.

Two recent books on art, Art at the Turn of the Millennium (Grosenick 1999) and Art Now (Grosenick 2002), are symptomatic of the importance of making a name. These thick tomes consist essentially of a long list of names accompanied by a selection of high quality colour reproductions. A very short text, far outweighed by the reproductions, is appended to each artist’s entry.[49] Books such as these clearly indicate the importance of being added to the institutional register of names.

Having no position of power within the art system, the viewer accepts that the names which are added to the canonical list are worthy of serious attention. Moreover, it is a simple fact that the more one pays attention to something the more ‘significant’ it will appear to be. On the other hand, if the viewer is strong minded and rejects the work of a canonical artist then one can point out that their opinion is insignificant when compared to the power of the art system. How could the international fine art system with its army of co-workers be wrong?[50]

In short, the viewer-reader has no power with regard to which artists are added to the canon. Mass media are more democratic in the sense that they are subject to the vicissitudes of consumer demand. Obviously, there is advertising and promotion of particular names, nevertheless, the consumer still possesses significantly more power than that evident in the world of fine art.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the fine art system is impinged upon by the forces of the mass mediatised consumer culture that surrounds it. One can, for example, draw a comparison between artistic identity and the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity. Artistic celebrity, however, does not map onto the social sphere in the manner of mass media celebrity, which becomes an integral part of the everyday. Masses of people do not identify with artists in the same way as they do film stars or musicians. A 2006 Becks beer advertising campaign in the UK that used ‘Young British Artists’ such as Tracey Emin was folded after a couple of weeks, never to return. Fine art celebrity only flourishes in the cloistered confines of the fine art system.

Accordingly, the person who is serious about assuming an artistic identity must tackle the difficult task of penetrating the world of art in order to become recognised and, if possible, be canonised. And although the recognition thus acquired is less massive than that enjoyed in popular culture, there is a perception that artistic celebrity is more enduring, due to the institution of art history. One can note, for example, the rather curious fine art convention of accompanying an artist’s name with their date of birth as if awaiting their passage into immortality.[51] But with the growth of cultural studies as an academic discipline it is quite possible that mass media celebrities will be afforded a similar degree of ‘immortality’. In other words the exclusivity of the fine art system may suffer the same fate as the British class system, which has been all but swept away by the pervasive and considerable force of mass culture.

One element of the clash between exclusive and mass culture was touched upon in chapter four, which is the lack of communication inherent in much fine art. Up to the advent of abstraction, art employed narrative and representation. With the advent of modernity and competition from photography, fine art turned from socially oriented, extrospection to a self-obsessed introspection evident in romanticism, symbolism and expressionism. Another feature of the turn away from an extrospective, social orientation is evident in the rise of anti-narrative in art. This begins with Cubism and its shattering of the perspectival window onto the world. And with Cubism came the name ‘Picasso’ which has become a logo for modern art. Like Van Gogh, Picasso also epitomises the modern, bourgeois, concept of the artist-genius. What is of interest is that Picasso is awarded this status in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people do not understand or appreciate his work in any depth. His fame and his images filtered out of the subcultural confines of fine art system into the everyday but little understanding of the images filtered through.[52] We can ask whether this is on account of the innate profundity of the work or due to an absence of a broader cultural relevance. We can contrast the instance of Picasso with an equally outstanding media artist such as the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. What we find is that there is much less difficulty in understanding Eisenstein’s work due to his fundamental involvement in cinematic narrative. Eisenstein’s legacy lies in his development of cinematic montage as a post-literary narrative device that has become an intrinsic feature of narrative cinema. It is also possible to note that the legacy of the literary correlate to Picasso, evident in the anti-narrative of James Joyce, failed to have an enduring impact on literature. Literature returned to narrative whereas fine art continues to embrace the legacy of the fragmentation of representation that was first visualised in Cubism. One can also point to the fact that popular music is characterised by a renaissance of tonality that largely abjures the influence of atonal avant-gardism that is the musical correlate of Cubism (Goodall 2004).

There are, therefore, at least two forces moulding contemporary artistic identity: firstly, the fine art system; secondly, the deconstructionist dogma of nonlinear narrative. The first separates art from the everyday, the second reinforces that separation.

Books, films and music require a mass of consumers to survive. Fine art, in contrast, does not need the mass of viewers because the fine art system is largely funded via collectors and governments. This situation provides the fine art system with so much power that it is possible for it to frame virtually anything as art. And the mass of viewers who visit art museums generally accept these choices and the rationalisations supplied by those who write for the fine art system.[53]

This is not to suggest that all contemporary art is hollow, there is a great deal that is of value. The point I am trying to make is that there is insufficient emphasis upon the viewer-reader within the art system as it stands today. What is most surprising is that fine art can exist in such splendid isolation in a complex postmodern environment where cultural boundaries are increasingly motile, and power is increasingly distributed.


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Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Van Gogh has come to epitomise the modern concept of artistic genius. There are multiple frames supporting this concept, some ideological some physical.

The imposing facade of the National Gallery of Washington D.C. which houses Van Gogh's self-portrait 1889 is another socially constructed frame that supports the concept of aristic genius.

The imposing facade of the National Gallery of Washington D.C. which houses Van Gogh's self-portrait 1889 is another socially constructed frame that supports the concept of artistic genius.



Two art books published by Taschen (1999 and 2002 respectively) which have contributed significantly to establishing the canon of contemporary artists mainly by listing names together with colour illustrations. A very short text is appended to each entry which indicates the very minor role played by critical theory in the context of contemporary fine art practice at the turn of the millennium. On one level this could be a positive development as it indicates a shift from the values of 'high culture' towards a more commercial approach that is better accommodated to the values of late capitalist mass culture. The fact that there are so many names included in such compendiums might point to step in the direction of a democratisation of fine art practice.

LEFT Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. RIGHT: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910.

LEFT Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. RIGHT: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910. Kahnweiler and Vollard represent an important phase in the evolution of the commercial gallery system because they were not only art dealers, but dealers who could appreciate and champion the most avant-gardist art practice at the time it appeared.