What Do Artists Know - Ed. James Elkins - Penn. Univ. Press

What Do Artists Know?

What Do Artists Know?What Do Artists Know? - Ed. James Elkins - Penn. Univ. Press

with contributions from

Glenn Adamson, Rina Arya, Louisa Avgita, Jan Baetens, Su Baker, Jeroen Boomgaard, Brad Buckley, William Conger, John Conomos, Anders Dahlgren, Laurie Fendrich, Michael Fotiadis, Christopher Frayling, Charles Green, Vanalyne Green, Tom McGuirk, Robert Nelson, Håkan Nilsson, Peter Plagens, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, Howard Singerman, Henk Slager, George Smith, Martin Søberg, Roy Sorensen, Bert Taken, Janneke Wesseling, Frances Whitehead, Gary Willis, and Yeung Yang.


My Contribution to this publication is a critical overview of the published conference papers entitled;



What’s art got to do with it? - Gary Willis

Funny, at a time when so many young people identify as artists, so many theorists now argue 'art' offers no answers for the future. Many schools are dropping the ‘Art’ prefix in preference for ‘Visual Culture’, ‘Creative Industry’, ‘Culture & Communication’ … etc. Mieke Bal puts the argument against art history; ‘to take visual culture as art history is to condemn it (visual culture) to the same future (as art)’; the problem is that the 20th century premise is irrelevant to 21st century conditions. [1]

These conditions include; the globalization of art and its networks; the democratization of art and its audiences; the impact of technological revolution on the exhibition experience; the post-medium conditions of contemporary art; the post-colonial expansion of the concept of art to include a broader spectrum of socio-cultural practices, including many operating outside gallery networks.

Marta Edling reminds us, ‘there is no room for naivety within art’. Contemporary art has become a highly politicised public arena, dependent upon public funding. Out-moded practices are irrelevant to the curatorial initiatives that determine contemporary art. Thus, any question concerning the future of arts education must begin back at basics. What is art? My preferences are as follows; art as a critical instrument of cultural account to bring ‘Being’ back into play. Regardless of which métier, media, or technology an artist chooses, they must develop a responsive system of notation, into a language of personal account to seize the day and speak to becoming.

Joseph Beuys was right, ‘Everyman should be an artist’, but, as James Elkins reminds us, an art education cannot make you an artist.[2] Art education can’t do much for an individual talent. As Barbara Jaffee. puts it, ‘talent is innate’, sensibility belongs to nature and stands beyond institutional control. But ‘attitude’ however, can be cultivated. Knowledge belongs to culture and must be cultivated. This is the production that Thierry De Duve defines as the ‘real political work’ of an arts education. Christopher Frayling articulates this production as ‘an orientation toward the artworld’. I imagine he means an orientation toward the shifting political economies, which determine the public face of art. But, this is where the issues facing art become complex.

Given the institutional artworld has become the patron of our times, it should come as no surprise that many have fashioned art practices to take advantage of public funding; not all of them artists. [3] In this arena, the line between the artist and any other professional becomes fuzzy. Professionals from all disciplines can be contracted to illuminate the gap in the knowledge. Here the arts become preoccupied with ethics. However as Daniel Palmer notes, too much emphasis on ‘political critique’ often results in the contrived posturing of ‘political correctness’. Artists become not-artists - non-artists become artistes.

Frances Whitehead’s presentation does a great job of selling the artist’s skill-sets to the public project manager. No doubt the capacity for lateral thinking and operational agility is a wonderful by-product of any education, and the ability to maneuver within cultural, social and intellectual economies, a great asset. Nevertheless I am impelled to ask, ‘What’s art got to do with it?’ ‘Art’ seems an unnecessary appellation.

Artists are being generated from a broad spectrum of disciplines now, not just design but science, engineering, architecture, urban planning, history, politics, philosophy, film, fashion, music. High-level professionals are regularly imported into public exposition on the basis of the social relevance of their projects. The promotional skill-sets of social engagement and creative display are not exclusive to art. The issue here is that ‘art’ and ‘not-art’ alike, face the same the curatorial criteria; social contribution. And artists operate in a field where ‘artistic merit’ has been discombobulated, democratized and in danger of being displaced by social issues of accountability where art becomes a political instrumentality. The issue facing art education becomes, what does the study of ‘art’ actually offer?

Marta E. critiques Thierry de D’s evaluation of contemporary art as ‘negative’. The problem that Thierry identifies is art’s lack of defining parameter; anything can be art - anyone can be an artist. In a globalized field where the curatorial emphasis has shifted to knowledge production, the issue facing art’s graduates is whether their deskilled, dematerialized, post-media practice can compete with the work of ‘creative professionals’ from more rigorous epistemological disciplines.

This is no simple matter of ‘loss of hierarchy’, as Christopher F. suggests. At a time when art’s historical disciplines have been rendered redundant and the history of art irrelevant, it is important recognize the depth of the problem. Whilst Jacques Rancière gestures toward an intertwining of ‘art and not art’, Giorgio Agamben pinpoints the predicament. When so many art theorists align themselves with ‘not art’ in the ‘art – not art’ dichotomy, art’s future becomes obvious.[4]

Further, as art becomes more deeply integrated into the academic system, it faces rationalization and the same funding criteria as any other discipline; namely the caveat of ‘contribution to knowledge’. Despite the ‘contribution to culture’ qualification, that Monash University instates, as both Daniel P. and Marta E. affirm from opposite sides of the globe, all academic funding is subject to ‘National Interest’ checklists; art is no exception.

This brings me to the difficult question of foundations. Marta E. argues we need to understand art as a process, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen calls for a redefinition of praxis, the relationship between theory and practice. In this regard I am interested in Christopher F.’s three points of ‘the normative’, ‘the critical’ and ‘the expressive’, the last of which he qualifies as ‘the development of the artist’s own voice’.

Christopher describes the ‘normative’ as the grammar of social knowledge; the base level of understanding we accept as ‘the known’. Through the establishment of common points of reference the ‘normative’ lays the foundation for the ‘knowable’ and introduction of ‘the unknown’. If an artist is to study anything, I believe they are well advised to study the signification of the known. The presentation of evidence is important, regardless of which system of representation they choose to present it.[5] Language is significant to art, not because communication is art’s objective, but because existential engagement is only possible through shared points of reference.

I believe Christopher’s conception of the ‘critical’ is the pivotal axis which signifies ‘art’. Art’s ‘critical’ function is to counter-balance the ‘normative’ pressures of society. The point of reference for arts ‘critical’ perspective is the interface between the hegemonic nature of the social and the instinct of the individual. This existential point between the individual and society is the gap from which art’s knowledge rises to assert itself. Which is to say, I do not believe in the instrumentality of art; art as agitprop. The ‘politically correct’ maybe ethical, but it ain’t always art. As Barbara J. suggests ‘art replaces ethics’.

Art speaks back, it asserts itself from the gap in the known. However to arrest the ‘normative’, the artist must be able to mess with the cultural-coding. This is the significance of developing a language, an instrument for cultural incision. There are many systems available, but given the complexity of contemporary cultural conditions, it is up to each artist to fashion their own equipment. Art’s objective is to bring the unspoken truth of the artist’s knowing into ‘a language of form’ to liberate Being from the hegemonic conspiracy of the social obligation to an indeterminate future.

Finally the ‘expression’ word, which Christopher qualifies as ‘finding ones own voice’. The big question facing art education now is; how does the artist develop a reliable language system? Here, ‘deconstruction’ proves an invaluable tool. As Jonathon Dronsfield defines it, deconstruction is the doubled process of critiquing and rebuilding of cultural knowledge. Stephan S-W is concerned that ‘deconstruction’ sounds ‘too much like French philosophy’; where an artist ends up writing theory rather than making art. But the value of ‘deconstruction’ is not in the study philosophy, but rather it is in the reconfiguration of ‘deconstruction’ as a praxical tool for the appropriation of cultural knowledge.

Despite the demolition of art’s history, from the Barbizon School to Conceptual Art, no period of art is without its insight. Each period of art must be seen in the context of the social, political and economic forces, which have given rise to it. Each successive period is displaced by the following generation, which inevitably reconfigures art’s parameters within the context of social, economic and technological determinates of its own time. Arts objective remains constant; to liberate ‘Being-for–itself’. There is a pattern here. Whilst art is state of flux, it’s function persists. This is what Arthur Danto means when he says ‘not one step has been taken since Aristotle’.[6]

In answer to the question; ‘What do artists know?’ I offer the following paraphrase of Giorgio Agamben; The true work of art offers us the gift of poiêsis; the uncanny production of presence, where the past and the future are both at stake and the act of being-in-the-world claims its proper meaning. [7]

[1] Mieke Bal, "Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture," Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (2003). 5.

[2] James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught - a Handbook for Art Students (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

[3] Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated - the Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). 43-51

[4] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007). 18;

Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content (Stanford, Los Angeles: Stanford University Press, 1999). 51

[5] Here I use Hans Georg Gadamer’s conception of ‘language’, which is not limited to spoken word or written text. By ‘language’ Gadamer means, ‘any language things possess’. Gadamer’s conception of the function of ‘language’ in art is to ‘bring being into lighting’.

[6] Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986). 103

[7] Giorgio Agamben, "The Original Structure of the Work of Art," in A Man without Content (Stanford, Chicago: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Monograph - Artinfo Imprint

Tony Woods - An Archive

Gary Willis  - 'Tony Woods - Harkness Fellow - New York - 1968-1969'


This essay has also been published in its entirity in ISSIMO Magazine (First Issue)
under the title of 'Back to Bohemia - The Chelsea Hotel Revisited'


In the 2nd issue of ISSIMO Online magazine
'Art and its Double: Fashion' published as 
'How Art became Fashion's Poor Cousin'


Fashion & Art - Valerie Steele & Adam GeczyFashion & Art

Edited by Adam Geczy & Vicki Karaminas

Berg. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.2012

Click on image for link


 UN 6.1 cover

review for

un magazine

volume 6.1

 '...a dedicated follower of fashion?'






… a dedicated follower of fashion?

The editors of Fashion and Art (F&A) published Berg, 2012, Adam Geczy & Viki Karamininas, would agree with Lisa Phillips, Director of the New Museum, New York. Phillips candidly claims any distinction between fashion and art is ridiculous - ‘Fashion at its highest level is an art form!’[i] However, as the editors of F&A note, if fashion really aspired to be art it would be ruinous. For those given to consider art’s influence on ‘capitalism’s favourite child’ F&A offers a significant archive of seventeen essays collected from historians, sociologists, academics and professionals that traverse the field of fashion including contributions by Hazel Clark (Research Chair of Fashion, Parsons New School for Design, New York), Dianna Crane (Emerita Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania), Mary Gluck (Professor of History and Comparative Literature Brown University Rhode Island, USA), and Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator, Museum, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York).

Geczy and Karamaninas introduce this collection of essays on fashion and art with Lady Gaga’s spectacular entrance to receive MTV’s Video of the Year Award in 2010. The video clip sees Lady Gaga flanked either side by ex-military personnel exited from the U.S. armed forces for being gay or lesbian and wearing her risqué prosciutto ensemble - a protest against the US military’s Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell policy. However as the editors point out, Gaga’s outfit was prefigured twenty four years earlier by the work of a Canadian artist. Jana Sterbak’s work Vanitas: Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987 was a series of skirts made from raw steak articulating her concerns about fashion and self-image. Whether Lady Gaga took her inspiration from Sterbak or not, ‘capitalism’s favourite child’ would seem to be a dedicated follower of art.

Despite the proliferation of museum retrospectives for fashionistas, beginning in 1983 with Yves Saint Laurent at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more recently in 2010 Valentino at the Queensland Art Gallery it is interesting to note the number of designers who do not identify as artists. Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs would all align with Karl Lagerfeld when he quips ‘Art is art, Fashion is fashion’. While art has its own quirky logic and specific genealogy, commercial pressures remain the determining parameter of the fashion industry. Of course, there is a significant history of designers who have identified as artists, not least of all the father of haute couture Charles Worth. Contemporary designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan appear to deploy art as a marketing strategy, which the museum industry seems keen to embrace. However Patricia Bickers, (editor of Art Monthly UK), wonders if this bond between fashion and art isn’t merely a marriage of convenience and denotes the vast sums of money changing hands in the name of fashion and art. For example under the curatorial direction of Germano Celant the Guggenheim New York raised $15 million (US) for their 1999 Giorgio Armani exhibition.

The perennial challenge facing any student of art or fashion is always the gulf between art as a conceptual practice and art as commodity production. In her paper Conceptual Fashion Hazel Clark, details a short history of collaboration between artists and fashion designers. Beginning with Salvador Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli and their infamous lobster telephones and shoe hats Clark moves onto Phillip Treacy’s Lobster Hats for Isabella Blow and Lady Gaga. Clark then considers the process productions of Issey Miyake - the first fashion designer to be featured on the front cover of Art Forum magazine in 1982 – before introducing Ma Ke, who integrated her conceptual-art-line Wuyong (Useless) into her commercial-fashion-line Exception de Mixmind . As Clark notes, it was Ma Ke’s useless art-line that secured her an invitation to the 2007 Paris Fashion Week ultimately winning her the award as World Outstanding Chinese Designer of the Year in 2009.

In her essay Dressing Up Mary Gluck, reminds us that anyone embarking on an artistic career without a livelihood will soon find themselves facing bohemia, which Henri Murger defined in his 1848 play La vie de bohème as ‘a stage of artistic life which precedes either the academy or the morgue’. Gluck denotes the era when artists dressed flamboyantly, grew long hair and beards etc. Forget the 1960s, ‘the end of bohemia’ was signified by the riots, which erupted on opening night of Victor Hugo’s play ‘Hernani’ and spread into the streets of Paris in 1830. What ignited this ‘Battle of Hernani’ were the socio-economic pressures of industrialization and commercialization. Does all this sound familiar? Gluck argues that it is the losses incurred in the ‘battle for bohemia’ that gave rise to Charles Baudelaire’s image of the flaneur. More than the peripatetic dandy, the flaneur was a figure of letters drawn onto the streets, not simply to survey, but to locate the gap in the market.

Regardless of which side of the conceptual/commodity divide you dress on ‘Fashion & Art’ offers a pithy read for anyone considering a future in fashion or art in the twenty first century.


Gary Willis is a post-conceptual painter & the author of ‘The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art’.


Fashion and Art

Editors; Adam Geczy & Vicki Karaminas – 2012

Berg - Bloomsbury Publishing

Cover image: Jason Kibbler

Dazed & Confused August 2009


1. Bickers, Patricia. "Marriage a La Mode." Art Monthly, 2002.


 What is Installation?What is Installation?

Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio (Editors)

Power Publications, Power Institute, University of Sydney: 2001

'temporary art goes pop'

Review of “What is Installation?” - Gary Willis published Arena Magazine 2002

One glimpse at the pile of big glossy publications at your local arts book-shop or library and you will understand, from a multinational publishing perspective, the art of the new millennium is installation art.  Today when most art books are published offshore with a global marketing agenda, it is consoling to see any book, which offers an overview of a global movement from a local perspective. 

Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio’s "What is Installation?" makes a significant contribution this collection. Its selected essays reference most aspects of the history of installation practiced in Australia; from its outsider origins, the theoretical developments of the '70s and the impact of the Sydney Biennales, the implications of the technological revolution; to questions regarding installation art's institutional prominence in the '00s.  Some forty of the country's influential cultural commentators have contributed to this authoritative tome, between them they seem to have covered most theoretical bases, although any anthology is remarkable for its exclusions as well as its inclusions and "What is Installation?" is no exception. Notable exclusions include the history and significance of artist-run-initiatives; this is an issue worthy of attention. Nor is there any mention of the complex issues concerning copyright for an art form which has no commercial outcome.

Geczy and Genocchio divide the essays into five separate classifications: Theories and Beginnings - Institutions - Environments – Objects, and, finally, Interfaces.  Each classification has its own brief introduction.  These sectional classifications delineate the shifting attitudes to installation on a time-line from; the early '70s with the ubiquitous Mike Parr reflecting on his early work; to the late '90s where you get McKenzie Wark raving up cyber-culture from Sim City.  Most of this anthology is made up of revisions of essays published in their day and they astutely reflect the interests and values of those days.  As to the crucial question, Where is the art in installation? Most contributors doff their hats to that expedient commonplace, that there are as many answers to the question as there are practitioners…and I too, doff my hat. Keith Broadfoot has a point when he suggests in "Installation Art Today - The End of the Line", that unlike painting or sculpture, installation does not refer to a specific material discipline i.e. there is no such thing as 'installation art' per se.  That having been noted, today's general consensus suggests the word 'installation' refers to an art-form, which privileges the dynamics of space, over the physical particals which circulate within it;the quantum physics of art, if you like.

Looking into the essays themselves there are many references to the revolutionary origins of installation in Dada and the Bauhaus.  From the ''70's, under the influence of Joseph Beuys, there is a need to 'recover the sacred function of art' which signals the beginnings of a reappraisal of Aboriginal culture and its rituals.  Djon Mundine's essay “Forest of Dreams”, details the history and significance of the 200 burial poles, which were originally conceived and installed for the Bi-centennial Biennale of Sydney in 1988, and can now be seen on permanent display in the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia.  In a similar vein, Genocchio's essay “The Edge of Trees” discusses the political and personal conflicts arising from the first public collaborative commission between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, respectively Fiona Foley and Janet Laurence.

“The Edge of Trees” was conceived as a gesture of reconciliation, to be erected on the site of the first Government House, that is, at the very seat of colonial power in Australia.  The ensuing conflict and protests witness the unresolved 'sorry business' amid accusations of racism and genocide, which continue to mark Australian cultural identity.  Arguably burial poles – these 29 pillars of timber, sandstone and steel – were set in a 20 metre grid to map the original location of the Aboriginal clans who inhabited the Sydney basin, before they were almost entirely annihilated by the British fleet and its cargo of convicts.  The burial poles contain organic substances associated with Aboriginal sorcery such as; hair, honey, pollen, resin, string, shells, bones and ash, Foley and Laurence might have equally included some specimens of colonist's organic magic such as, gunpowder, poisoned flour and the smallpox virus.  It is remarkable that the first collaborative public commission in acknowledgment of this conflict, and ultimately of colonial guilt, was produced as late as 1997, that is, some 209 years after the event of the arrival of the First Fleet.

George Alexander points out, how 'large numbers' of women have been drawn to the art of installation and I note, women account for about a third of the content in this publication, both as artists and as writers.  The poetics of space has long been associated with feminist theory and practice in art, and Rosalind  E. Krauss' ”Sculpture in the Expanded Field”  is seminal here.  The expansion of the space surrounding sculpture, into an exploration of all the things that the object is not: the context, the architecture, the landscape, the people, the place – all becoming a part of the dynamic of an installation, and ultimately leading the revelations of an infinite 'otherness'.  Susan Best's essay “Women Artists and Sculpture in the Expanded Field” raises ontological debate regarding the ways of seeing the act of 'be(ing) in the world'.  Instead of reading the onset of post-modernism as being the removal of boundaries a-la Lucy Lippard's “The Dematerialisation of the Art Object” or Paul Taylor's “Anything Goes”  Susan Best references Phenomenology and European philosophers: Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Iragaray.  In doing so she promulgates the idea of 'the world' as an element that one is immersed in and ultimately, inseparable from.  This is a viewpoint that runs parallel to the ancient Buddhist perspectives pictured in Lindy Lee's 1995 installation / performance / meditation 'No up - No down - I am the 10,000 things'.

To its merit, much of 'What is installation?' is given over to the practices of individual artists:  The mystical associations and everyday occurrences in the events of Dom De Clario; Absence and presence in the mytho-poetic installations of Simone Mangos; Market and marginality in the theory and practice of Peter Cripps; The perceptual technologies of Joan Brassil's dreaming; Pornography and paradox the installations of Brad Buckley; Natural instinct and the machinations of Patricia Piccinini.  Much of the visualisation of the work itself involves the sometimes, tedious process of written description of the installations, where a picture or two could have saved a few thousand words but reproduction and pictorial rights is a complex business. However, if a picture’s worth is a thousand words then the art itself could well be under-valued.

Anne Marsh notes in her essay “Requiem Chorus: Peter Kennedy's Millennium Opus”, that while Walter Benjamin's seminal text Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is usually cited in support of a technology-based art, Benjamin goes on to state the aura of uniqueness of art is diminished by reproduction. Benjamin's thesis concludes with the grim prediction that going down this road, the future of art will become politics.  While many of the essays comment on the origins of the art of installation in the political dissent of DADA, very few of the essays comment on the realpolitik of the situation for artists now.

Terry Smith's article re-printed from the Sydney Morning Herald 1991, “Installing the Format of the Future”, paints a rosy picture for the medium’s future.  Many museums are turning their permanent galleries into temporary exhibition spaces, their curators into artists and vice-versa.  However, what was once the market for art, has been transformed into an audience for a spectacle. As the arguments of the avante guard are taken up at an institutional level and the academy becomes ephemeralized, art has become a heady mix of pop and politics. Group shows and collaborations of throw away art are often curated around politically pertinent issues, but often have less to do with voicing an 'other' and more to do with voicing politically expedient agendas.  In this way the death of the author/artist, and the individuated artwork, plays directly into the hands of the political. As the title of Juan Davila's work suggests “We are making spectacles of ourselves!”  The question that remains is, to what end?

Whilst performance art was regularly derided by the dramaturges as poorly concieved one act plays, installation art has at least one thing in common with theatre; at the end of the show all sets and props get 'bumped out'.  The stuffed animals go back to the museum, the glass cabinets go back to the display department, the scribble on the wall gets scrubbed down and the actor/artist moves onto the next job.  Whilst the spectacle of contemporary art might have become something we all love to hate, most artists have become caught in the political game of public profiles, a game which holds little hope for those who judge outcomes in terms of winning.  Public funding has always been set in-line with curatorial agendas and politics - but now it appears that this alliance could be at odds with the artist's self interests.

 In a recent Radio National interview,  Jean-Christophe Armann, the curator of the Museum Fur Kunst Moderne, Frankfurt. Jean-Christophe in discussion with Bruce James, was saying how curators are not so interested in 'art' now; it had ceased to represent the values of the culture at large – those broader cultural interests are better represented by advertising, photography and fashion.  Armann went on to talk about the Benetton Ads and Claudia Schiffer.  Perhaps this is the end that Walter Benjamin referred to, when he suggested art in the age of mechanical reproduction leads to politics. Marx always maintained that art was a bourgeois indulgence, could it be that the art bubble is about to go pop?

Gary Willis - Melbourne - 2002