Art historian Benjamin Buchloh’s 1980 dismissal of Joseph Beuys’ work as ‘simple-minded utopian drivel’ may have some merit. Although his criticism was directed foremost at the artist’s dubious political engagement, Buchloh also targeted Beuys’ role as a performative ‘messianic’ figure. And he was probably right—true to the art historian’s criticism, Beuys’ symbolic lexicon is something out of a new-agey astrologer’s cookbook.
Picture the artist’s 1965 performance ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’: Beuys cradles a dead hare as he courses a gallery hosting his art. His face covered with honey and gold leaf, his foot plated with an iron slab, the artist gently whispers explanations of his drawings to the dead animal. The now-famous piece, only viewable from the outside through a gallery window, would seem absurd to any number of people. Appropriately shooting down Beuy’s use of personal mythologies and messianic tendencies (two tragic inclinations better left buried in the vault of modernism) Buchloh’s vitriol didn’t inhibit Beuys’ performance from being canonised as an early investigation into the role of the artist speaking about his work. What is more, Beuys opened a proverbial can of self-reflexive worms for the forthcoming postmodern era. Do lectures simply function to create meaning around a given artwork? What is their intersection with performance? How does the lecture-as-performance intertwine with pedagogy, and how can the medium inform professional artistic practice?
The highly selective lineage presented here—that of art utilising both performance and the pedagogical lecture—contains a spectrum of work ranging from the strictly performative, as in the case of Beuys, to the purely educational, as with the work of Anton Vidokle. Beginning on the cusp of postmodernism, Beuys’ ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ marks the onset of lecture-based performance, through the era of ‘institutional critique’ and the performances of Andrea Fraser posing as museum docent Jane Castleton, and towards the contemporary work of Anton Vidokle, Mark Leckey, the Bruce High Quality Foundation and Seth Price. This lineage is not a direct chronology of amassed references, but a largely fabricated one. It illustrates paradigm shifts in artistic discourse and changes in the assumed function of the artist via the lecture-performance.
How does Beuys’ interpretation of his work to a dead animal in ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ shed light on the function of the artist? Honey obscuring the artist’s face represents the creation of bees—a society of sorts based on brotherhood. If a hare symbolises rebirth—itself a spring animal, burrowing below ground and resurfacing—the artist essentially calls for a reimagining of discourse surrounding art, privileging (much to Buchloh’s dismay) the nowantiquated cathartic function of artistic practice. ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ signals dissatisfaction with the artistic discourse of its day, which was characterised as object-driven and overly institutional, and instead calls for a more personal and community-oriented appeal.
This isn’t terribly surprising. In 1969 Beuys said of his appointment as a sculpture professor at Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf, ‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to explain yourself you must present something tangible. But after a while this has only the function of a historic document. Objects aren’t very important to me anymore.’ Clearly, Beuys implemented factions of his social and professional life into his aesthetic practice. Even after he was dismissed from the Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf in October 1972 for creating ‘institutional friction’, he continued lecturing publicly.
So, can Beuys be considered the grandfather of this breed of performance? Arguably, yes, although it remains dubious that a chronological organisation of lectures-as-performance would no more than sketchily inform the category. Like any other accumulation of works, their production is rhizomatic and complex. ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ epitomises one extreme of the grouping; the intimate and nondidactic performance.
Fast-forward to 1989 and institutional critique is in full swing. Twenty-four years after Beuys’ performance, Andrea Fraser debuts her character Jane Castleton, an upper-class museum docent. Initiated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a commissioned lecture series, Fraser’s performance titled ‘Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk’ considers how various contextual displacements within the museum setting influences a viewer’s reception of art. While Fraser’s performance is not a direct progeny of Beuys’, it does signal a paradigm shift in the discourse of artists contextualising art through utterances. Where Beuys focused on fostering a community within which to speak about artistic practice, Fraser limits her trajectory to subjective and objective relationships within the museum sphere.
Through the vehicle of satire, ‘Museum Highlights…’ subverts the docent’s authoritative role to underscore its inherent absurdity. The docent—a volunteer who speaks about a museum’s work—not only represents a figure belonging to a leisure class bearing the time and resources needed to volunteer, but also one of vague authority designated by his/her institutional association. Fraser’s tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as Jane Castleton begins without raising suspicion, describing various objects within the museum, period rooms works of art. Castleton soon broadens her tour to facets of the museum building not under the purview of fine art, including its bathrooms, the coat check room, and so on. As Sadira Rodrigues notes in her essay ‘Institutional Critique Versus Institutionalised Critique: The Politics of Andrea Fraser’s Performances’, upon the tour’s approach of the museum shop, Castleton asserts a member of her audience may purchase its naming rights for a mere donation of $750,000 to the museum. Fraser actually references her ‘real’ artistic identity, spontaneously mentioning to her group that Andrea is a nice name, then suddenly asserting that the gift shop is, in fact, named Andrea, bought by a Mrs John Castleton that year. At this point, most, if not all, tour group members begin to realise they’re bearing witness to a work of art rather than a standard gallery talk.
Fraser’s tour uncovers political and financial intelligence about the museum’s underbelly usually unknown to (often leisure-class) patrons. Thus the museum no longer remains a neutral space within which to obtain a ‘cultural experience’—an idea borne out of the Enlightenment still clinging to survival. Fraser’s vacillation in character from upper-class docent to artist-as-cultural-critic highlights the power associated with social context in viewing works of art, specifically through utterances.
The past few years have seen a proliferation in lectures-as-performance shifting toward the strictly educational, away from both the authoritative subversion of institutional critique and Beuys’ more performative, community-oriented postmodern ventures. For example, on the cancellation of Manifesta 6 in 2006, Russian-American artist and e-flux founder Anton Vidokle initiated the year-long unitednationsplaza, which included free lectures by art world notables. The project has since travelled to multiple outposts in various countries, including New York City’s New Museum under the title Night School . Much like Beuys’ ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’, unitednationsplaza centred around discussion and community—so much so that it may be difficult for some to consider his oeuvre ‘fine art’ at all. Vidokle’s lecture series barely engaged performance or any other codified artistic practice, representing the most pedagogical and least performative end of the spectrum of works presented here. Lectures by visiting theorists or artists about art world topics, commissioned by Vidokle, created new meaning around the discussed work or topics. Further instrumentalising the lecture as a value-designator, unitednationsplaza simultaneously fostered a sense of community by creating a platform for discussion.
Meanwhile, 2008 Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey recently embarked on a year-long series of theatrical lectures entitled ‘Mark Leckey in the Long Tail’, bringing together ‘old-school’ didactics, a film soundstage and fine art performance. Leckey deconstructs the ‘Long Tail’ phenomenon by way of the character Felix the Cat, among other manifestations, which he believes embody the concept. A term coined by American journalist Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail’ represents the frequency with which marginal endeavours are consumed. The very few most popular are designated by ‘the head’ (take for example, in song-writing the top 40 music chart hits), with the remainder, ‘The Long Tail’, representing the innumerable songs written by unsigned rock units.
Leckey’s project illustrates the extremely complex topic as a 50/50 combination of education and performance. Distinct from the straight pedagogical scope of Vidokle, the community-oriented aspect of Beuys, or contextual displacement of Fraser, Leckey builds on the tropes of theatre in his performance. Similar to unitednationsplaza, it may be difficult for some to include ‘The Long Tail’ within the scope of fine art. Evidenced by Leckey’s undoubtedly fits within the discipline, but perhaps distinctively challenges it. The artist approaches cultural education through both its most antiquated roots—the highly literal ‘old school’ props such as a chalk board, and also under the guise of entertainment—Felix the Cat, smoke, mirrors and all. Further, the decisive popularity of ‘The Long Tail’ indicates a broader desire for, and the success of, an artist melding an investigation of pedagogy with theatrical presentation.
In July 2009 a group of anonymous young New York-based artists known as The Bruce High Quality Foundation staged a lecture entitled ‘Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull’ at Harris Lieberman Gallery, New York. The lecture, an obvious reference to Beuys’ 1965 performance, offered an excavated history tying late 20th-century market concerns to the advent of MFA programmes. ‘Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull’ criticises modern art schools for being overly academic, failing to adequately prepare students to make work in their field. By highlighting the outrageous economics of private art school education and those institutions’ success in getting their students jobs, The Bruce High Quality Foundation issues a sobering truth regarding the current state of pedagogy and finance in the art world. In response to this, the group will create a free university sponsored by New York’s Creative Time, a non-profit organisation, founded in 1974, that commissions public art. Indebted to preceding tuition-free universities such as the Renaissance Academies, Cooper Union School of Art and Black Mountain College, Bruce High Quality’s ‘Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull’ pairs a straightforward lecture format with a self-reflexive interest in art education.
New York-based artist Seth Price presents a similar interest in the professionalisation of young artists in his ongoing video ‘Redistribution’. Initiated in 2008, ‘Redistribution’ repackages the artist’s videotaped lecture originally given in 2007 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Comparable to Leckey’s use of old guard stage magic, Price plays with tropes associated with his medium of choice—the artist’s slide presentation. Fade-outs and cheesy music accompany footage illustrating artwork and theories influential to the artist’s practice. Price narrates an exceedingly clear chronology of his artistic epistemology, offering his viewer new, meaningful information regarding his practice while simultaneously existing as an autonomous work of art. Though undoubtedly considered a fine art video, ‘Redistribution’ occupies the vague terrain of supplementary material, responding to contemporary demands on the artist as being ‘professional’.
The preceding chronology of lectures-cum-performance should elucidate not only the heterogeneity of the category, but also a paradigm shift away from how art is spoken about contextually, and toward an investigation of the emerging role of the artist-as-professional. As previously mentioned, the lineage here is highly selective. Artists engaging the lecture as a medium not presented here include (in no particular order): Eric Duyckaerts, Sharon Hayes and Andrea Geyer, Walid Raad, Ryan Gander, Trevor Paglen, Nina Beier and Marie Lund, Alexandre Singh, Adrian Piper, Christian Philipp Müller and Will Holder, among others. The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Seth Price and even Anton Vidokle, underscore the dysfunctionality of the art school institution and its inability to provide an attainable platform for education.
Unfortunately the conundrum of how to finance art education—particularly in the United States—remains a topic of little importance to society at large. Buchloh may disagree, but perhaps this is precisely the historical moment that calls for an iconoclastic rabble rouser like Beuys.
Karen Archey is associate editor of Art Fag City in New York