[NetBehaviour] Fwd: <nettime> Critique of the Hermetic Contemporary Arts Discourse--Interview with Merijn Oudenampsen

Annie Abrahams bram.org at gmail.com
Sat Feb 27 13:58:06 CET 2016

a very interesting read on the art discourse  and it's relation to theory

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Geert Lovink <geert at xs4all.nl>
Date: Sat, Feb 27, 2016 at 10:44 AM
Subject: <nettime> Critique of the Hermetic Contemporary Arts
Discourse--Interview with Merijn Oudenampsen
To: a moderated mailing list for net criticism <nettime-l at mail.kein.org>

Critique of the Hermetic Contemporary Arts Discourse
Interview with Merijn Oudenampsen
By Geert Lovink

The Dutch sociologist and activist Merijn Oudenampsen recently published an
essay about the “incomprehensible art discourse.” It was Mieke Gerritzen,
director of the Museum of the Image in Breda who pointed me to the piece,
written in Dutch. The essay was published in the literary magazine De Gids
(2015/5, pp. 6-9).

I was surprised to see someone raising this often heard critique in public.
It needs some civil encouragement to address this somewhat taboo topic as
those who raise it are easily accused of anti-intellectualism and
considered not politically correct. Such critique is unlikely to emanate
from the Anglo-Saxon West; nor will it stem from France or Germany. There
is an additional risk factor as it can ruin one’s academic career, which so
often depends on nepotism and informal networks that were built up over

The starting point for the article was a Dutch controversy over a Prix de
Rome exhibit (2013) where arts journalists complained about the
‘complexity’ of the chosen art works. Ernst-Jan Pfauth of the online daily
De Correspondent attacked the jargon used by the Amsterdam Stedelijk
Museum. This, in turn, prompted a critique of the populist attitude among
journalists. Every profession develops its obscure codes of expression.

In the anthology Spaces for Criticism (Valiz, 2015), Pascal Gielen and
Thijs Lijster at first attempt to defend the use of jargon in art
criticism. The difference, they write, in comparison to other professional
circles, is that art criticism takes place in public, and is meant for the
general audience. It is not happening behind closed doors. The writers note
that also art critics themselves start to have difficulties with jargon.
“Their jargon is becoming increasingly irrelevant, as it is simply
exchanged for a different jargon—that of philosophers and sociologists.”
Art criticism has been replaced by ‘art theory’ on the one hand and experts
that value the investment done by large institutional players and the
global elite on the other. Is this displacement just a matter of a sector
in demise or does this also give us renewed opportunities for
experimentation and dissent?

Merijn Oudenampsen’s thesis in De Gids is that the two Dutch attitudes,
anti-intellectualism and the dominant theory jargon, are two sides of the
same coin. The wide-spread desire to experience art works in an unmediated
fashion goes hand in hand with calls from the ministry of culture and the
gallery market to remain competitive in the global market. This
‘sophistication’ can only be reached, and maintained, if works can be
contextualized through international discourses, in English. Oudenampsen
himself often refers to the writings of art sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and
has already discussed this thesis before in Open! (

Geert Lovink (GL): You are currently wrapping up your PhD research at the
University of Tilburg (NL), which deals with the rise of populism and the
rise of rightwing nationalism in the Netherlands and beyond. You have also
critizised the still popular ‘shockblog’ wwwgeenstijl.nl. Is it because of
your familiarity with right wing pop culture in the age of the internet
that you ‘dare’ to raise this sensitive issue?

Merijn Oudenampsen (MO): What prompted my intervention is a funny
combination of familiarity with and estrangement from the worlds of art and
theory. Seven years ago, I was a guest researcher at the Jan van Eyck
Academy in Maastricht, an art academy that hosted an important department
of radical theorists at the time. Now Dutch society in general – and the
art world in particular – is traditionally hostile to theorizing. So it
took me some time to come to terms with the phenomenon: why all this high
theory in an art academy? I had been trained as a sociologist and had my
praxis, so to say, as a political activist in the alter-globalisation
movement. Sociologists and activists share a very functionalist perspective
on the world. You’re accustomed to judging things as an instrument of
social change, or as a functional element in the social structure. And, of
course, Dutch culture is very practical as well. What added to my
estrangement is that it was mostly radical philosophy being discussed:
Rancière, Zizek, Badiou, Butler and so on. Much to my confusion, there
seemed to be no praxis in sight at all. Worse, any attempt at application
was seen as an insult to theory. I remember quite vividly a lecture on the
work of Toni Negri and Italian Autonomous Marxism. When I asked how it
related to contemporary marxist movements, the lecturer told me that
philosophy should not be besmirched and instrumentalized by the demands of
practice. Of course, I was perplexed. The lecturer was defending the
autonomy of theory.  Posing that same question about art: ‘what is it good
for?,’ often provokes a very similar outcry. It slowly dawned on me that
art and theory operate according to a similar logic. Since then I’ve come
to hesitantly appreciate the mixed blessings of autonomy. But I was such an
alien creature in that world.

GL: The overall climate in the Dutch visual arts scene is anything but
intellectual. For decades it was official policy that artists were not
supposed to read books and make intelligent statements. They just had to
shut up and produce hands-on, radical ‘acts of beauty’. These artworks, in
turn, were to be interpreted by professionals such as critics, curators,
museum and gallery directors. And the general audience could pick up the
scraps. Could there be a relationship between Dutch pragmatism,
anti-intellectual culture and the supposed incomprehensible arts discourse?

MO: Yes, that’s the crux of my argument. A very traditional, Romantic
notion of artistic autonomy predominates in the Netherlands, even if it
remains largely implicit. It seems to feed into a broader strain of Dutch
anti-intellectualism. Reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction was very
insightful for me. In this study, Bourdieu attacked the idea that art can
be appreciated intuitively or spontaneously, what he calls “the ideology of
charisma”. Bourdieu used large surveys to show that appreciating art is not
a personal gift but a skill acquired through education. He traced the idea
of spontaneous appreciation back to Kant, who argued that aesthetic
judgment departs from Begrifflösigkeit. In other words: the enjoyment of
art is beyond rational categories of thought. For Kant, the artist was a
genius, rationally unaware of what he was doing, intuitively expressing the
intangible beauty of nature. It’s a bit like Jedi’s and the Force in Star
Wars. According to this perspective, when artists start thinking they stop
producing great art. Also when explaining art to viewers, you ruin the
artistic enchantment and reduce the complexity of the artwork. My argument
is that a similar mentality exists towards theory. I’ve been to lectures in
Dutch art schools where students with no philosophy training at all are
exposed to very sophisticated high theory. They just don’t have the means
to understand it. Students are taught to relate to theory spontaneously
and/or aesthetically. Of course, that results in the hilariously
incomprehensible art blurbs one often finds in art exhibits. A way out of
this problem is to break the pedagogical taboo and bridge the disciplinary
divisions between manual and mental labour in the art world. The newly
created PhD programmes for artists in the Netherlands are a step in the
good direction.

GL: The visual arts infrastructure in The Netherlands has suffered from
radical budget cuts imposed by the government. One of the few theory
castles outside of academia, Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, was
dismantled. On the other hand, there are still some initiatives left that
are known overseas, such as the Antennae Series by Valiz Publishers,
Open!(which before was a printed cahier) and the occasional titlespublished
by NAi010 Publishers in Rotterdam. Then there are the efforts by the Van
Abbe Museum, BAK en Casco in Utrecht. Maybe some have heard of the Former
West research project, initiated and coordinated by BAK. The DAI MfA course
(ArtEZ) in Arnhem is also becoming known internationally for its critical
work and its uncompromised devotion to High Theory. There is Henk Slager
with the MuHKA program in Utrecht. Lately even the Rietveld
Academy/Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam offered a Critical Studies MA. In
your article you mention their Studium Generale lecture series. What do you
make of this picture?

MO: There’s a small archipelago of more theory-inclined art institutions.
Relative to the artistic mainland, they represent the fringes of the Dutch
art world. The budget cuts implemented by the previous rightwing government
were organized in such a way as to target the more experimental,
contemporary and small-scale initiatives. The cuts were motivated by a
paradoxical mix of conservative, right wing populist and neoliberal
elements. Halbe Zijlstra, then State-secretary of culture, was very
explicit: the unparalleled size of the cutback – three times as large as in
other sectors – was needed to prevent institutions from absorbing the cuts
within existing structures. So the goal was really to forcefully eliminate
some of the institutions and mentality created by the progressive cultural
policy of the last thirty years. The cultural sector was condemned for
being too self-absorbed, alienated from society and not accessible enough
to a larger public. The quality of cultural production should be decided by
visitor numbers and not by the opinions of experts in the art council,
Zijlstra argued. At the same time, “national heritage” became one of the
new key words. The more traditional and conservative parts of the cultural
sector, such as the Rijksmuseum, assumed a central role in this new
reality. But the paradox at play is that the new cultural policy also wants
Dutch culture to compete internationally. So that gives some space for more
critical and theory-friendly institutions, which largely operate in a more
international context. But there is a big disconnect between the mainland
and the archipelago. We have seen, with the firing of Lorenzo Benedetti
from the Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam, that the new businesslike attitude
on the mainland puts the art world on a much tighter leash. There is a lot
of pressure on Dutch art institutions to tick off all the boxes: one must
simultaneously serve the Dutch audience, be internationally successful, be
commercially successful, be diverse and locally embedded.

GL: In the article you describe a lecture on French philosopher Felix
Guattari which most students don’t seem to understand but enjoy because of
its poetry and mysterious complexity. Isn’t the problem here much deeper?
Education in the Netherlands is not focused on Bildung but increasingly on
professional training. If you haven’t read Freud and Kafka, and don’t even
know who they were, why bother reading Deleuze and Guattari?

MO: This phenomenon has deep historical roots. The famous historian Johan
Huizinga observed in the 1930’s that Dutch intellectual life largely
consists of the reception of foreign ideas from surrounding countries, and
testing these to see if they were suitable to the Dutch climate, marked by
“intellectual placidity” with “a deep-seated element of scepticism”. Ernest
Zahn, a German sociologist who wrote a classic in the eighties on Dutch
political life, noted a dearth of interest in philosophical and theoretical
problems in the Netherlands. The fundamental philosophical themes of man
and society weren’t conceived as theoretical and intellectual questions, he
argued. The Dutch made do with religious dogma and moral principles. Zahn
described the country as an old, solid democracy that can afford to neglect
political theory. I’m currently writing on this phenomenon for my PhD
thesis. The historian Perry Anderson published “Components of the National
Culture” in 1964, a groundbreaking essay in New Left Review on the
anti-intellectual, empiricist culture in the UK. He argued that the lack of
political upheaval and revolutionary discord in British politics
forestalled the development of political and sociological theory. There was
no need to think society anew. Therefore, no radical intellectual culture
developed. In the Netherlands there is a very similar combination of an
anti-intellectual culture and a political history without major caesuras or
upheaval – it is soothingly described by historians as a “cabaret” compared
to the “high drama” of surrounding countries. But Anderson noted a change
in British intellectual life due to the arrival of continental emigré
intellectuals around the Second World War. They introduced theory in an
anti-theoretical culture. Since then, intellectual life in the UK has
developed tremendously, and London has become a European centre of sorts.
Also in the Netherlands, after the Second World War, there was a sharp
reorientation of intellectual life. But here it was a departure from the
more theoretically inclined continental European culture and a still very
dominant orientation toward American empiricism.

GL: As is the case in many non-English speaking countries, art criticism in
the Netherlands is caught in the dilemma of whether it is obliged to
communicate in the national language to reach its own audiences or submit
to the pressure to participate in the global conversations, in English. In
the past, when there was still plenty of money, it was easy to declare that
we do both, but these days there is less and less money for translations,
and for publications in general. Publishing websites are supposed to
produce their content, in English, for free.. Do you see in these
conditions a necessity to return to Dutch in order to restore support for
the arts in society without reverting to the national (or nationalist)
frame of reference? Hasn’t the widespread use of English contributed to the
gap between subjectivity and culture, and instead of a solution has become
a problem? Should we in fact conduct this interview in Dutch?

MO: I don’t think it’s very productive to tell people what language they
should write in. But the gap is increasingly problematic. And Dutch
institutions do prescribe the use of English. For example, Dutch academics
are rewarded three times as much for English articles as for Dutch ones.
Publishing books in Dutch is considered a hobby, something to do in your
leisure time. This has an effect on Dutch intellectual culture. It is
basically living apart together. The general audience reads in Dutch and
lives in another world, intellectually. That broader Dutch audience is
mostly served by journalists, who tend to be more superficial and more
conservative. The field of newspaper and magazine art criticism is a good
example. It is dominated by journalists with very traditional conceptions
of artistic autonomy and art practice. Instead of defending the arts, the
newspaper critics played a supportive role in creating the atmosphere for
the budget cuts. They’ve repeatedly campaigned against political art, or
more discursive, complex and experimental art. Newspaper critics like
things that can be appreciated spontaneously. Of course the curators have a
different mindset, but they are nonetheless obliged to pay heed to the
newspaper critics. A critical art practice needs to take into account the
conditions of its own intelligibility. If curators, critics and artists
won’t relate to the Dutch public in the Dutch language, someone else will
do it for you. And on the long term, that will result in a very hostile

GL: You point at recent polls which show that the Dutch population
primarily sees arts and culture as entertainment. The goal of art works
should not be to question, reflect, let alone critique society. At the same
time people enjoy uncivilized attacks and provocative statements. I see a
parallel here with the work you’re doing on the conservative turn in Europe
and the rise of right-wing nationalism. Is it useful to ask the question of
what Geert Wilders’ position is in this matter? Or Podemos and Syriza, for
that matter?

MO: Well, the right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders (PVV) was of
course the most prominent force pushing for the budget cuts in the first
place. He famously called the arts “a left-wing hobby”. I’ve argued
elsewhere that there is a strange symbiosis between right-wing populism and
neoliberalism. In the right-wing populist imaginary, culture is one of the
most important bastions of class privilege. The Dutch Right effectively
portrayed publicly subsidised culture as an opaque inner circle where
everybody is busy granting each other favours. In this context the market
becomes a democratising force: only the market can judge quality
democratically on the basis of transactions, here understood as visitor
numbers. As a political program this is very useful. Thomas Frank
identified a similar logic in the American Culture Wars: the main political
antagonism sketched by conservatives was between the common people and the
cultural elite, not the economic one. Egalitarian attacks on the culture
elite make it possible for the Right to attain support for an economic
agenda that is decidedly less egalitarian. The same phenomenon appears
again with Donald Trump, the economic elite is seen through a cultural
lens, as ‘someone like us’, someone that talks and thinks like ordinary
people, even if Trump has inherited most of his wealth. A left-wing
populism is of course the inverse: it attacks the economic elite and aims
to win the cultural elites to its cause. In the seventies, Bourdieu
observed that people with lower incomes were relatively conservative in
cultural terms and relatively progressive on economic terms. The political
battle is whether one frames the political antagonisms economically or

GL: In a tweet Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbe Museum, wrote:
“Elitist, self-absorbed, conformist, servicing the oligarchy are just some
of the words that would describe 90% of the art world today”. This is yet
another example of the renaissance of elite theory. Back in the seventies,
the elite approach was criticized for its lack of ‘class analysis’. Is
there a similar danger these days? Thomas Piketty has given us the
‘scientific’ foundation of the 1% slogan of Occupy. This is now widely
accepted, quite different from 5-10 years ago. The middle classes are
shrinking and the divide between the very rich and the poor is growing. As
a result contemporary arts is openly accused of serving the 1%.

MO: Of course the art world has always been closely related with elite
culture. And a lot of artists produce art for the art market, which is all
of the above. But neither the elite, nor the art world are monolithic
entities. The political attack on the Dutch art sector cannot be understood
if we assume that art is merely serving the oligarchy. Why would the
oligarchy attack its own art institutions? One can make a rough distinction
between the cultural elite and the economic elite. The former is in general
subservient to the latter. Sometimes there is a clash and the relations
between the two are reconfigured. What we have seen these past years in the
Netherlands is basically economic elites disciplining and taking control of
the cultural sector, which had a large degree of autonomy. Similar
developments are taking place in universities, which are more and more
being run like companies, while they used to be run by professors
themselves. The Piketty complex expresses itself most clearly in the art
market, and the record prices that are being paid for paintings. No need to
bother with art discourse there. Money does the talking. The closed art
discourse seems to be more a feature of the Dutch publicly funded arts
sector, where most of the more critical and reflective art is being
produced. The problem of hermetic art discourse is that it isn’t serving

(Thanks to comments of Jorinde Seijdel)

Merijn Oudenampsen’s essays in English can be found on his website:
http://merijnoudenampsen.org/category/english/ <

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