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March 4th, 2009
Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 05:34 am

Today -- and I think this will be the last day in Altermodern week, because I'm feeling burnt out on it already -- I want to go one level of meta deeper into the conversation that the Tate Triennial 2009 has inspired. We've done the concepts, the mainstream press reaction, now let's do the reaction to the mainstream press reaction. I've collected together a list of all the reasons people came up with (mostly on blogs, sometimes right here on Click Opera) to explain the hostility with which large parts of the UK press greeted the Altermodern show, Nicolas Bourriaud, its curator, and the concept of the altermodern. Remember, in a parallel world this is being covered with curiosity, accuracy, positivity, pride, enthusiasm. Think of the numbered suggestions below as reasons we don't live in that parallel world.



Before I list these explanations, I want to note that we have 23 related but different reasons here. Now that makes me a little uneasy, for a start. It makes me think of Slavoj Zizek's essay on the justifications for the Iraq War, The Iraqi Broken Kettle. Now, one or two reasons for going to war might not raise suspicions, but when you're given twenty different reasons, shooting off in all directions and contradicting each other, you get into the realm of Freud's broken kettle. Freud described a man who returned a broken kettle to a friend with the three statements: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. One of these would have been enough; three is too many.

Okay, so here are 23 reasons why the British press broke the altermodern kettle. We begin with some of the explanations given in Altercritics, Dan Fox's article on the Frieze website:

1. "The British have an uneasy relationship to visual culture." Dan Fox. This is "the Chromophobia argument". But where did it come from, this uneasiness? According to Fox, and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, it's rooted in religious schism:

2. "The moment of trauma that scarred the nation’s visual psyche forever was the 16th-century English Reformation, which saw the country’s ruling church and state break from Catholic Rome in favour of establishing its own Protestant church. In the late 1530s, monasteries across the country were dissolved, and Catholic churches sacked. Protestant doctrine prohibited the idolatry and manufacture of graven images of God, which resulted in the wholesale destruction of much of the country’s visual art." This is interesting; religion lies behind the rants we read yesterday?

3. "Essentially the legacy of British art is that neither the abolished Catholic tradition nor the Protestant century of destruction will ever triumph. The Britishness of British art rides on a tension between two aspects of a sensibility; a Protestant distrust of religious exuberance, colour and decoration and, on the other hand, a tremendous yearning for what has been lost (as a result of the Reformation). The British tradition has developed as a dialogue between these two things.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, quoted by Dan Fox in Frieze

4. Then there's the British hatred of success, its need to shoot down high-flyers and especially high-flyers with intellectual pretensions: "Critics tend to use contemporary art as a lightning rod for their disdain of a particular bracket of artists with high media profiles, and anything with a whiff of financial profligacy or conceptualism about it – often all three." Dan Fox

5. Dan Fox also touched on the empirical / a priori philosophical divide between the anglo-saxon nations and continental Europe: "Skepticism towards ‘big ideas’ can, in some cases, be evidence of a healthy and down-to-earth pragmatism. The flipside, however, is a paranoia about pretension – an anti-intellectual fear of somehow being ‘caught out’ by ‘big ideas’ if, at a later date, they are demonstrated to be worthless."

6. Then there's the historical background to Francophobia in England: "You probably have to go back to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 for clues to... the anti-Gallic subtext running through some of the ‘Altermodern’ reviews." Dan Fox



7. Daniel Miller, commenting under the Frieze blog, suggests some sort of territorial scuffle between the mainstream media and the art world: "In 2008, Gregor Schneider proposes exhibiting a dying person in an art gallery, and is attacked. In 2009, Jade Goody is now actually doing this, in the full glare of the media. And, granted, she is being attacked as well, but it is all part of the circus. What contemporary art only promises, the mass media delivers. Perhaps the latter fears the former, like a hero fears his shadow?"

8. A more pragmatic excuse is offered by Adrian Searle, who actually is a journalist writing for a mainstream newspaper (The Guardian): "Newspaper critics in the UK sometimes have less than 24 hours to see a show AND write about it. Sometimes half that. I think the disgruntled if not exactly angry tone you detect is actually defensiveness, frustration and panic, most of the time, as well as a mistaken wish to appear somehow ‘controversial’, which invariably sucks and shows people at their worst."

9. Here are some of my own hazarded guesses. I guess that people understand someone getting a kicking much more readily than they understand art (something getting a looking).

10. I guess that the editors of newspaper culture sections are projecting an assumed -- but incorrect -- hostility on the public's part. Maybe it's not that incorrect, though. There is hostility out there. Even people at art school -- what am I saying, particularly people at art school! -- feel hostility towards the art world.

11. Another Freudian reference, this time to his "narcissism of small differences" (which proposes that the kind of differences siblings exhibit, ie small ones, are the most murderous): "The English and the French are cousins who are too much alike. It explains most anti-Europeanism in Britain - there is a mass refusal to accept how close we actually are, which becomes self-perpetuating." Robin Carmody, comment on Click Opera

12. Here's me trying to parse the "we're not shocked, you're not subversive" tone of many of the reviews we saw yesterday: "The press begins with the proposition that the contemporary art world is shocking and subversive and radical and avant garde. The press then complains that the work is not shocking, not subversive, not radical and not avant garde. Having set this expectation up and demolished it by a series of paradoxical "looking glass arguments" (in which the radical becomes conservative, the anti-colonial a new form of colonialism, the future the past, the subversive becomes only what subverts the expectations of radical niche audiences at progressive institutions like the ICA, and so on), the press is content, in most cases, to do nothing more. Having established that the work is not shocking, they end their reviews without ever looking at what it is."



13. But I'm still wondering how much of this is a pose. Is it that writers are really shocked, but pretend not to be?

14. Or that writers think their readers would be shocked, and pretend moral outrage on their behalf?

15. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that language is the currency of power, and art uses language in sufficiently different ways from the mainstream media that it spooks the hell out of journalists.

16. The post-colonial theme, the presence of an Other who is not blamed, looks to outsiders like the art world letting the side down, letting the West down. It looks like art being the West's quisling, its fifth columnist. That arrogant proposition the altermodern might produce, paradoxically, a certain humility. I think this is the implication people like Nick Cohen fear the most in the altermodern; they see it as submission before The Bad Other, ie "dhimmitude".

17. Or it could just be a hatred of the brainy: "One should be used to this with the mainstream press – they’ve always been scared of intellectuals that go beyond the merely middlebrow." Comment on Ready, Steady, Book

18. The press isn't just afraid of the intelligence of intellectuals, but their capacity to bore people and chase away customers: "There is also a fear of intellectuals in the press in terms of the media's terror of the switch off, or the channel hop. You know the kind of thing: 'if we linger on this guy talking for too long without flashing graphics, etc then we might lose the fleeting interest of our micro-attention span public!' Similarly in newspapers, most discussion of thinkers, musicians and artists is levelled at biography rather than ideas. Or the critic will often tell us how they feel about a work rather than substantiating what they think about it." Rowan Wilson, commenting on ReadySteadyBook

19. Me again, suddenly realising that this storm in a teacup may actually be good news for the art world: "Actually, I think what we see here is a great example of the kind of moral panic which tends to signal a rude state of health for the medium involved." And you thought it was just the artificial rape of non-real girlbots that got people hot under the collar?

20. Of course, this may all be calculated provocation: "By putting "a Frenchman" with "a theory" in charge of the Tate Triennial, Serota has waved a very successful red flag in front of a very obdurate and foolish bull. And it has charged." Me, here, yesterday.

21. Then there are the inevitable hypocrisy arguments: "It is debatable whether anyone other than a white middle aged white male curator established in one of the western world's oldest centres of culture would be in a position to [propose a clean sweep], or that the whole project of the invention of curatorial conceits reflecting tendencies and framing contemporary and historical cultural movements, conforms to already well established western cultural critical practices anyway, so there is already something of a critical hegemony in place already." Anon comment, Click Opera

22. It could all be blowback for hype: "This show which, personally, I found interesting but it's hardly an earth-shattering dawning of a new world era." Anon comment, Click Opera

23. Then there's the Helen of Troy hypothesis: "Are you still upset that Serge got Jane?" Anon American, Click Opera

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