Installation shot of Christopher Williams' exhibition "For Example: Dix-Huit.Seeing Things
Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 19),” 2014, David Zwirner
Bettina Funcke on art and artists in the modern age
Bettina Funcke is a writer, editor and co-founder of The Leopard Press and the Continuous Project group, which produces a variety of art publications and events. She is the author of Pop or Populus: Art Between High and Low (Sternberg, 2009) and her work has appeared in such publications as Artforum, Bookforum, Mousse and Texte zur Kunst. She teaches the Situation of the Arts seminar in the MA Critical Theory and the Arts program at SVA.
Students in the Critical Theory and the Arts program largely take classes in aesthetics, philosophy and social theory, but my seminar—which I sometimes co-teach with Jay Sanders, a curator at the Whitney Museum and the person who first taught the class—is really about art, and examining art’s function in society today. The role of art has changed tremendously in the past 10 years. The West communicates and defines itself through contemporary art, and other regions of the world are starting dialogues with each other through these international art events. It’s a big opportunity but even more so a challenge for artists. The connection between art and politics is an age-old marriage—or tension.
In our class, we often visit or host artists or go to exhibitions or performances, to see the work firsthand and to talk directly with the artists about their practice. Last year, we held a screening of two documentary films by director Laura Poitras, and she later came in to speak with the students. We attended a dance class given by choreographer Sarah Michelson, and we went to the Whitney’s Jeff Koons exhibition with curator Scott Rothkopf. To go from a dance class with Michelson to a Jeff Koons retrospective might seem preposterous, but one of the goals of the seminar is to encourage students to think about how all art deals with similar questions, and how all artists struggle with things like context or patronage. Koons’ work, in particular, is so much about that. He appears powerful or wealthy, but his work is always extraordinarily expensive to produce, he is such a perfectionist, that it used to be very difficult for him to pay for his production costs. There’ve been moments when he’s had to shut down his studio, or where he couldn’t execute a project the way he wanted for 10 years, because he didn’t have the money for it.
Christopher Williams, Standardpose [Standard Pose] 1,0 Zwerg-Brabanter, silber,
Düsseldorf 2013 (Vera Spix, Elsdorf) Ring number: EE-D13 13-901, green Studio
Rhein Verlag, Düsseldorf, 2014, inkjet print on cotton rag paper. Courtesy of
Zwirner.We also visited the David Zwirner Gallery on the invitation of artist Christopher Williams, to meet with him while he was installing his show there last fall. When you watch a show being put together, you see artists at a rich and vulnerable moment: there are all these possibilities and nuances they have to consider and all the decisions they have to make. When you see a finished show you think, “This is it.” But it easily could’ve been something else. And Williams, as an artist, has always been part of an institutional critique—his work makes visible the framework and limits of an institution, be it a gallery or a museum. He talked with the class about the relationship of the works with one another, how he considered moving certain walls, about deciding whether to leave visible the scar of where a wall had been removed, so visitors would see that this was a space where decisions had taken place—and he showed us the catalog volumes that for him are such an important part of the exhibition.
I notice that students often have various defense mechanisms when it comes to contemporary art that they don’t really let the art get to them. It's easy to pull up a critical argument—about the corrupting effects of the market, about art's vanity and impossibility—and wipe away the value of what it is that the artist really does. Students wrestle with the problem of how an artist can claim autonomy when you’re not autonomous in society. If you want to live off your art, you have to engage with a gallery or institutions that have their own interest. The interdependencies are complex, and everything is a push-pull. It can be difficult to just experience the art. ∞