Institutional Myth in Contemporary Art

I’ve spent a lot of time in & around the New York visual art scene the past few years, and it’s been a very strange & uncanny & informative experience. A lot of the preference falsification and undead prestige cultures of, say, academia, or science, or politics are in play, but here the emperor can seem at times almost fully denuded, instead of partially clothed, which helps clear the diagnostic fog. I’ve been trying to understand, and see clearly, through a culture which I’ve previously accused (jokingly, but seriously) of gaslighting me and other participants, & thought some of the resulting thoughts might be of interest to folks who either are inside visual arts communities, and feel similarly enshrouded, or who are outside of it but have never quite ‘understood’ what’s going on in visual arts scenes.

Sarah Perry, in “Business As Magic,” defines an institutional myth as a public narrative advanced by a number of simultaneous institutions and individuals with aligned self-interests, who are uncoordinated (there is no “conspiracy”) but nevertheless converge upon and reinforce a shared message (as if there were). The four characteristics of such a myth are:

  1. Language of Morality: Beliefs about trivialities are not myths. Institutional myths “refer to widespread social values and emphatically use semantics coming from those value systems” (Piber & Pietch, 2006). Myths deal with sacred matters and moral consideration, and often use language borrowed from religion.
  2. Zone of Ignorance: Myths are protected from falsification or excessive inquiry by social forces. “Follow the sacred and there you will find a circle of motivated ignorance,” says Jonathan Haidt. […]
  3. Idealization and Ambiguity: Myths are not merely falsehoods, but idealized, simplified accounts of complex matters. Myths attach to values that are difficult to precisely define and difficult to measure. A myth is so vague and uncertain that its epistemic status is in some ways unknowable. […]
  4. Symbolic Evaluation: Since myths deal in subjects that are inherently ambiguous and in some sense unknowable, the evaluation of myths is “restricted to symbolic considerations, which leave many interpretations possible” (Piber & Pietch, 2006). Symbolic ritual activity is directed toward the sacred value, with no demonstrable causal connection to any particular measurable outcome. Empirical falsification is inherently difficult, and therefore can be avoided. 

Perry applies this frame to discuss national security as the institutional myth whose moralistic invocations of terrorism, and sacredness zone around 9/11, created an unchallengeable narrative in early 2000s American political culture, leading ultimately to heightened military involvement in the ME. I think it applies also to a very different kind of narrative, advanced by progressive cultural institutions & interested individuals, rather than conservative political ones, this being the myth of visual art’s intrinsic and inalienable value to society. (This narrative is heavily incentivized by both government grant structures and private donor prestige cycles.)

  1. Language of Morality. Contemporary visual art is advanced as not just capable of addressing current cultural, ethical, & political crises—that capability is assumed, as evidenced by the high valuation and large attention directed at explicitly activist work—but one of the key technologies in doing so. 
  2. Zone of Ignorance. One important supplementary myth of the visual arts world which insulates it criticism is that outsiders to the its culture are incapable of advancing meaningful criticism against it, since they lack the deep disciplinary knowledge necessary to “properly” perceive contemporary works: 

When I showed the poem to Sischy, she was not amused. “Forgive my lack of a sense of humor,” she said, “but what I see in that poem is just another reinforcement of stereotypes about the art world. It’s like a Tom Stoppard play, where you have an entire broadway audience snickering about things they haven’t understood. It makes outsiders feel clever about things they know nothing about… [T]his poem reflects the gap that exists between the serious literary audience and the serious art audience.” 

That’s Janet Malcolm in 1986’s “Girl of the Zeitgeist,” quoting Artforum Editor in Chief Ingrid Sischy. The “poem” under discussion is by art critic Robert Hughes—his writing for Time magazine, instead of a dedicated New York arts publication, is enough for Sischy to dismiss him as outsider. 

There is an extent to which many of the “effects” which contemporary art tries to achieve in viewers are inaccessible to outsiders; they dialogue with the discipline’s history, techniques, other contemporary artists, etc. However, the majority of critics who are familiar enough with contemporary visual art to bother formulating public opposition to it are well aware of what the artworks under discussion are 1) trying to, and 2) do in fact accomplish in viewers. What is being objected to is the scope and value of that accomplishment. Is a work which claims to “think through” crucial contemporary political issues, merely by using fabric with a contested history of use (e.g. produced in the Middle East, used by American military, etc…), actually “thinking through” anything substantial, and if so what conclusions can we actually come to through the invocation of this contested fabric? The successful delegitimization of outside critiques also suppresses the reality that many, perhaps even most, insiders to visual art are themselves disillusioned with the current state of visual art. This reality is hidden through preference falsification not just to others but to oneself, insofar as once one “becomes” an insider, one has invested such tremendous amounts of time and psychic energy which would be devalued by such an admission. Further, the futility of launching such critiques against contemporary art —the clear public record of critics/thinkers/writers being delegitimized as necessarily ignorant— discourages insiders from receiving the same fate, say, that Robert Hughes receives. In other words, no outsider is capable of criticizing, and no true insider would. Either way, aggressions against the zone of ignorance are handily suppressed. This is to say nothing of the self-selection effects in which those skeptical of visual art’s impact on culture & society instead go into filmmaking, or research, etc. Continuing (Tumblr won’t let me start my numbering at 3, so treat #1 & 2 as #3 & 4 in actuality):

  1. Idealization and Ambiguity. The precise benefit and value of contemporary art is kept vague, or even undefinable—the value is intrinsic and inalienable, but also unquantifiable. It is argued to exist, but is also so self-evident it does not need identification. 
  2. Symbolic Evaluation. As The Sublemon has argued, experimental art rarely embodies a true experimental spirit because it lacks success-failure criteria, and its results are not actively evaluated, are treated as beside the point, as if the mere conducting of the experiment were where value lies. (As opposed to the value lying in the extraction of knowledge possible in the experiment’s wake.) Part of this is the rise of precarity in visual arts culture, which leads to (as Bourdieu puts it), mutual admiration societies of hobbyists who support each other in order to rise to the top. Rigorous criticism, with the real potential of failure, is suppressed; paradoxically, art that claims to be highly experimental and risk-taking never seems to fail. Similarly, there is very little real attempt to evaluate the claims of contemporary art’s general value, purpose, or function. Occasionally such questions are summarily asked in the op-ed pages of a major newspaper, but the discipline itself evades, in almost all its theoretical production, real inquiry into these topics. 

These qualities of institutional myth resemble Bourdieu’s theory of illusio: “the tendency of participants to engage in [a field’s] game and believe in its significance, that is, believe that the benefits promised by the field are desirable. […] Whatever the combatants on the ground may battle over, no one questions whether the battles in question are meaningful. The considerable investments in the game guarantee its continued existence. Illusio is thus never questioned” (Henrik Lundberg & Göran Heidegren). 

Lastly, Perry argues that within corporations, energy must be split between turning an efficient profit and perpetuating the public-facing institutional myth. In arts organizations, the two efforts are the same; money comes in via grants and donations that are the result of persuading both individuals and other institutions of the worthiness of the myth.