Are We Living in "Post-Artistic" Times?

"Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times" exhibition view. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

In general, museums are invested in the separation of the art object from everyday life. The infrastructural elements of the museum reinforce this separation: art objects are kept in the white box of the gallery or in the storage vault; experts appraise, interpret, curate, market and manage the art objects; museum exhibitions and events function as spectacles that define the rules of engagement between spectator and art object. Curiously, as art objects became more indistinguishable from everyday objects--following from Marcel Duchamp and his inheritors--the art institutions that manage them became increasingly more important, rather than less. As artists continue to work to break down the boundaries of separation between art and life, the apprehension and appreciation of their art becomes even more reliant on the expert culture of the museum to offer interpretation and legitimization.

"Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times" exhibition view. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

For some artists--think Gabriel Orozco's yogurt cup lids, or Tino Sehgal's conversations--the context of the museum or gallery provides the only line that separates their art from everyday life, and therefore becomes all-important to the work itself. Take the work out of the museum and it loses all meaning. For other artists, on the other hand, the context of the real world is more important to the art--their work operates on the level of everyday life, on a 1:1 scale. These can be performances carried out in the artist's daily life, or artworks that engage with real world things and issues in tangible ways. These kinds of artistic practices, rather than relying on the museum to legitimate them, resist the museum context. "Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times," at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, curated by Sebastian Cichocki and Kuba Szreder, considers the latter kind of art.

Emilia Pavilion, temporary exhibition space of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

In 1957, Duchamp defined the "coefficient of art" as "an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed." The curators of "Making Use" bring together artists, collectives, and organizations that operate in other fields outside of art, but whose activities possess a "high coefficient of art," based on such ineffable qualities as critical imagination, poetic form, and conceptual allure. Using this and other terms, drawn primarily from theorist Stephen Wright's 2013 essay "Toward a Lexicon of Usership," and inspired by Polish critic Jerzy Ludwiński's 1970 essay "Art in the Postartistic Times," Cichocki and Szreder posit that art is "migrating" away from the rarefied museum space, and cross-pollinating with other fields--as social movements, alternative economies, scientific surveys, advocacy groups, underground universities, and other endeavors.

Center for Land Use Interpretation, Foreground: The Landscape of Golf in America, Los Angeles, May 22-September 20, 2015. Photo: Center for Land Use Interpretation.

In some instances, these entities exist in such an indefinable space that their activities are defacto categorized as art, even if they operate almost entirely outside of it. The Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, for instance, is a non-profit education and research organization devoted to the study of land use as "cultural inscription." While its activities belong to the order of the environmental research group--including publishing guidebooks, conducting public tours, administrating an extensive archive of information and images--its tone of curiosity and subjectivity has led to an overwhelmingly art-based audience, leading one prominent curator to call it "the Andy Warhol in the field of geography."

"Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times" exhibition view. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

In other cases, an artistic intent lies behind what cannot be mistaken for anything other than real world applications. That's Painting is a twenty-year-long conceptual art project by artist Bernard Brunon under the guise of a house-painting business. An example of what the curators term "occupational realism," Brunon approaches his jobs with the spirit and ethos of minimalist, monochrome painting, yet the result yields a standard house-painting service.

The Arabian Street Artists, "Homeland" is NOT a series, 2015. Graffiti from the set of "Homeland" season 5, episode 2. Photo: The Arabian Street Artists.

There is a kind of nimbleness at play in the roster of artists and organizations included in "Making Use," which includes participants one might expect to see, such as Tania Bruguera's social change art archive project, Museum of Arte Útil, along with those that might come as a surprise. The Arabian Street Artists, for instance, is not directly associated with an organization or particular social movement, but rather came into existence in an incidental and spontaneous way--through the inattention and ignorance of TV producers. The "Arab graffiti" the group was commissioned to produce for the set of Homeland went viral last year for its embedded critique of the controversial American TV show, with inscriptions in Arabic reading "Homeland is racist" and "Homeland is a joke and it didn't make us laugh." The meaning of these messages went unnoticed by the producers until after the show aired to over one and half million people--a sensational media subversion and form of "post-art" reaching a mass audience.

Zentrum für politische Schönheit, Die Jean-Monnet-Brücke, 2015. Still image from the film Die Brücke | The Bridge | Le pont. Photo: (CC BY 4.0) /

"Making Use" makes the most, however, of projects aimed at the current political crises and social upheavals facing the world today: climate change, global oil dependence, and the refugee crisis facing Europe and the Middle East. Artistic initiatives range from the New World Summit, which organizes summits for representatives of stateless states, to the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit and its propositions for acts of "political beauty," such as a bridge stretching from Tunisia to Sicily to allow refugees to cross safely into Europe. The most striking of these projects demonstrate that methods that belong to the realms of research, science, or law can present data with the visual economy and evocative narrative one would expect to encounter in the most moving and poignant works of art. One heartbreaking example is in the case of the "Left-to-die Boat"--a visualization of the trajectory of the vessel left adrift for two weeks within a NATO maritime surveillance area, on which sixty-three migrants died--by the research firm Forensic Architecture, which forms a morbid picture of military and state neglect when it comes to the human rights of migrants.

Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava and New World Summit, New World Summit - Rojava, 2015-16. Photo: Ruben Hamelink / New World Summit.

One of the questions "Making Use" asks is whether the museum institution can effectively present works of "post-art" that exist outside the walls of the art world. The exhibition displays these projects as "reports on 'art outside art'" with text, photographs, films, artifacts, and other forms of documentation, along with ephemeral elements such as dialogues, artist talks, and workshops that add to the gradual unfolding of the exhibition. Whether this results in a compelling experience for the viewer is highly dependent on one's predilection for, or tolerance of, museum texts and interpretive graphics. (The exhibition may even be more enjoyable to experience in its online counterpart.) But whether or not the museum is ill equipped to deal with art gestures that exist outside of its purview, "Making Use" certainly provides ample examples of the post-artistic in everyday life, that one will no doubt find art overlapping with reality at every turn.

"Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times" exhibition view. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

--Natalie Hegert