Gift Art and the Museum


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A discussion of the inherently public nature of artworks containing a "gesture of generosity" and their inherent dependence on the museum.

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Gift Art and the Museum

  1. 1. Forcing the Generosity of the Institution: Market Manipulation, Gift Art, and the Museum
  2. 2. Public Institutions “ Public” institutions are those that receive most or all of their funding or license to operate from the government, which is in turn funded by taxpayer dollars. In this way public institutions are viewed as being “owned” by the citizens. We discussed how this ownership necessitates a public trust, a contract between the institution and its public that relies on an adherence to a mission of serving the public good in some way.
  3. 3. Art + Markets I am interested in the contemporary art market, and contemporary artists whose work directly engages this market. An artist who is considered successful in terms of fame and marketable work relies on three main venues where the artwork’s physical presence is required. These are the commercial gallery , the museum , and the auction house . Of the three, only the museum is public.
  4. 4. Art Market Supports These art-world institutions are supported by critics, trade magazines such as ArtForum, international fairs, and non-profit art spaces or galleries.
  5. 5. Art Market Interventionists There are two main modes that artists use to carry out market intervention. -The first is a “disengagement” model, which attempts to undermine the expectation of the art object itself, either by doing away with it entirely, giving it away, and/or reproducing it to the point where its preciousness as a singular entity is destroyed. -The other mode is one of positive “engagement” with the art economy.
  6. 6. Engagement The engagement model sometimes uses the tactics of the former, but to very different aims. Warhol’s intensive output, pop-culture feedback loops, and media manipulation made him the progenitor of this kind of market-driven artist. His spiritual children are the Jeff Koons and Damien Hirsts of the art world, who make work from inherently precious objects, or whose works made of mundane materials or representing kitsch fetch enormous prices in galleries or at auction. These huge prices create interest in the non-art media, which in turn feeds the artists fame, generating more income opportunity.
  7. 7. <ul><li>Work by Andy Warhol of a Campbell's soup can has sold for $11.7 million at auction. ( </li></ul><ul><li>Hirst “For the Love of God” Costing £14 million to produce, the work went on display at the White Cube gallery in London at an asking price of £50 million, which would have been the highest price ever paid for a single work by a living artist.” (wikepedia: </li></ul><ul><li>Jeff Koons - “The owner of Christie’s auction house, Francois Pinault, is rumoured (according to ARTINFO) to have just paid $65 million dollars for the Koons “Rabbit” sculpture.”( </li></ul>
  8. 8. Disengagement Market “Disengagement” models include those that reject commodity fetishism and attempt to reconnect the physical presence and market value of the art object to its means of production. Many post-Marxist art movements have used some form of market disengagement as a critique of social conditions, capital, or governments. Examples include Duchamp’s everyday object “readymade”, Mail Art, Fluxus and Lettrism’s use of cheap materials, performance, or rejection of authorship, and Conceptual Art’s rejection of the object.
  9. 9. George Maciunas “Fluxus Manifesto” 1963 Chris Burden “Trans Fixed” 1974 Marcel Duchamp “Bottle Rack / Egouttoir” 1914
  10. 10. <ul><li>I am only going to discuss aspects of the “disengagement model”, but I mention the “engagers” such as Koons and Hirst in the interest of creating a reference point. </li></ul><ul><li>It could, of course, be problematic to focus on the agents of the economic extremes of the art market (in another article in the aforementioned issue of ArtForum, Joe Scanlan says “Any discussion of the global economy as a whole would be practically useless if it started from the assumption that General Electric and Sony and Microsoft were the only entities worth talking about, so one has to wonder how illuminating discussions of artists and money can be when they are almost always limited to superlative cases like Damien Hirst and … Jeff Koons…(Scanlan, par. 3))”. </li></ul>
  11. 11. However, I think it is illustrative to focus on clear examples of tactics, even though they might fall on the extreme ends of the practice.
  12. 12. Relational Aesthetics Since the 90s there has been a marked rise in the numbers of artists making work that engages with the viewer directly, that requires audience interaction to activate the work. This kind of work has been termed “relational aesthetics”
  13. 13. A definition From Wikipedia: “Relational Art (or relationalism) is defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder and former co-director of Paris art gallery Palais de Tokyo as &quot;a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.&quot;Artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.” “ The term was first used in 1996, in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, curated by Bourriaud at CAPC musée d'Art contemporain de Bordeaux.” (
  14. 14. Nicolas Bourriard included the late Felix Gonzalez Torres in an exhibition he curated at the San Francisco Art Institute entitled “Touch: Relational Art from the 1990s to Now”. The work included was a candy sculpture Untitled (Ross), 1996.
  15. 15. Other “Relational” Artists: Rikrit Tiravanija, Harrell Fletcher, Miranda July, Carsten Holler, Douglas Gordon, Andrea Zittel. (or artists who make “relational” works)
  16. 16. Historically, relational aesthetics is based on movements such as Conceptual art and Fluxus (and neoism, Situationism, etc. – all owing a big debt to Dada), which did not require an object to be produced, instead relying on the artists’ essential idea or instruction, which the viewer could choose (or not) to carry out. Alan Kaprow’s “Happenings” and other event based, temporial works also belong to the historical basis for relational aesthetics and gift/generosity art.
  17. 17. Felix Gonzales Torres Probably the most famous and influential purveyor of gift art is Felix Gonzales Torres. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in 1957 in Cuba, and grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City. He died of AIDS in 1996.” ( ) Gonzalez-Torres studied at Pratt Institute, the Whitney Independent Study Program, and at the Int’l Center for Photography. He began to have solo shows in NYC in 1990. He had several major museum shows during his lifetime. His lover Ross died in 1991 of AIDS. Many of his friends were to follow.
  18. 18. Some non - “giveaway” works by Felix Gonzalez Torres above: Perfect Lovers, 1987
  19. 19. Above: Untitled (North), 1993 Above: Untitled, 1992
  20. 20. This work became very popular in the 1990s along with that of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s food events, in which the artist created a sort of “free restaurant” (albeit with a limited menu of one dish) in the gallery space and served food for several hours every day during the exhibition.
  21. 21. The book What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (edited by Ted Purves) discusses the history, background, and contemporary iterations of art that provides an object, service, or interaction free of charge to the viewer. Ted Purves terms Gonzalez-Torres’ works as “gift sculptures (Purves 102)”. “These works, which literally reconfigured the art object into a gift or offering to the viewer, became emblematic of an almost classical approach to incorporating notions of generosity and charitable display into the museum and gallery system, literally changing the role of the audience from visitor to guest.”
  22. 22. I am specifically interested in the Felix Gonzalez Torres “giveaway” works because of how they are dependent on the museum. Museums occupy an ambiguous place in the art market, since they are not generally in the business of selling artwork for a profit. Inclusion in a museum exhibition (or better, a museum collection), solidifies the artist’s place in the market, and makes the work a better investment for private collectors. Despite their public nature, museums have an influential but tangential relationship to the primary art marketplace of galleries and auction houses.
  23. 23. Gift Sculptures (candy piles) Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991. Untitled (Blue Placebo), 1990
  24. 24. Untitled (Placebo), 1991
  25. 25. Gift Sculptures (poster stacks) Untitled, 1991 offset print on paper, endless copies 7 inches at ideal height x 45 1/4 x 38 1/2 inches And:Untitled(Republican Years), 1992 offset print on paper, endless copies 20 cm at ideal height x 138 x 98 inches Untitled (Death by Gun),
  26. 26. Untitled (Sea)
  27. 27. Torres’s gift sculptures are reliant on the audience to activate them by taking and consuming part of the sculpture. The hesitations of the viewer, who is often reluctant to break the “no touching” rule of most art museums, are an intended part of the piece.
  28. 28. Museum staff role in Gonzalez-Torres sculptures The museum staff also plays a role in the activation of Gonzalez-Torres’ sculptures. In an interview he stated: “In Washington people asked me, &quot;Did I train the guards, did I give them a lecture?&quot; I said, &quot;No, I just talk to them when I'm doing the work.&quot; They said, &quot;You know we have never been to an exhibit where the guards go up to the viewers and tell them what to do, and where to go, what to look at, what it means.” (
  29. 29. Forcing the Generosity of the Institution When the museum, with a mandate of public trust, and a dependence on public funding, presents one of the candy sculptures or paper stacks, they are allowing the artist to return some portion of the public’s support of the museum as a tiny gift. The audience can walk away from the museum with a part of the art, to consume or display as they choose.
  30. 30. Public Sculpture In this way, Gonzales-Torres’ sculptures are truly public, since they insist on the museum’s public role. The museum, as part of the “contract” of instruction that is the basis of each sculpture must constantly replentish the work to its ideal weight or amount. The work is reliant on the public to activate it, but the artist emphasizes the public role of the museum by making the institution literally serve the public. Instead of guarding its property, the agents of the museum give it away.
  31. 31. Bibliography Cuno, James, ed. Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust. Cambridge, Princeton University and Harvard University Art Museums, 2004. Gonzales-Torres, Felix. Interview with Robert Storr. Queer Cultural Center January, 1995. November 28, 2008. < http://www. queerculturalcenter .org/Pages/ FelixGT / FelixInterv .html > Klamer, Arjo, ed. The Value of Culture: On the Relationship Between Economics and Arts. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University, 1996. Purves, Ted, ed. What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. Albany: SUNY, 2005. Scanlan, Joe. “Modest Proposals.” ArtForum April 2008. Sholette, Gregory. “State of the Union: on Artistic Labor.” ArtForum April 2008.