Though exhibition practices have been scrutinized for decades, the formalist "white cube" remains an international gallery standard for the exhibition of modern and contemporary artwork. Simon Sheikh recently revisited Brian O’Doherty’s 1976 essay “Inside the White Cube,” assessing its continued relevance in light of the sustained ubiquity of the formalist exhibition practice. Sheikh identifies that “gallery spaces and museums are still white cubes, and their ideology remains one of commodity fetishism and eternal value(s)”, a contention that bore significant weight when it was published in 2009. The sustained predominance of the white-cube is especially fraught with respect to the art market in post bailout New York, wherein a recession era boom speaks powerfully to the character of American late-capitalism. This circumstance indicates the artist’s subservience to the inordinately wealthy, and complicity in their gratuitous consumer desires in an era of severe and increasing economic stratification. Though the formalist exhibition practice remains an almost unquestioned tradition there is fairly widespread consensus with regard to the formalist critical paradigm’s chauvinism and obsolescence. A number of artists and critics deride modern formalism because it has historically privileged artists, whose work is not framed with respect to identity, thereby trivializing the works of artists who are canonically and/or socially marginalized. But even these artists’ works are almost always exhibited in the inert, white walled formalist gallery – even if critics and curators invariably interpret their work with respect to biography and identity. This pernicious double bind speaks to the paradoxes of the supremacy of formalist values in the contemporary art world.
My concerns therefore extend well beyond Walter Robinson’s recently popular notion of "Zombie Formalism," since the formalist paradigm dictates the exhibition of nearly all artwork, no matter how ‘anti’ formalist it might be. That even ephemeral and dematerialized works are easily subsumed into museums and collections through the documentary photograph, for example, reflects the unabating supremacy of western formalism and commodity fetishism over contemporary art. If formalist works and the formalist critical lens are widely seen as obsolete, to the extent that contemporary exhibition of formalist works now recalls the undead, why does it continue to dominate art exhibition standards?
In his 1846 work The German Ideology, Marx explains that in its ascension to power, a dominant class strives to “represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society… expressed in ideal form: it … gives its ideas the form of universality, and represents them as the only rational, universally valid ones.” Though this text centers critically around the young Hegelians’ insular handwringing over the dialectic’s religious tenor, the text offers a widely applicable account of ideology and reification. By pointing to their disregard for the sociohistorical, material fabric that precedes German idealism, Marx offers a prescient account of the ways in which modern, bourgeois intellectuals reify their social domination through their increasing investment in the abstract. The bourgeois intellectual appeals to the abstract because he conceives of himself as in touch with some generalized, universally "true" human condition. By completely disregarding the ways in which his material circumstances inform his writing, he rhetorically sustains the social order that privileges him. This echoes in the modernist formalist canon, which operates in service of privileging the white, male, heterosexual bourgeois artist, asserting the autonomy of his artworks, lauding the ‘universal validity’ of his subjective experience or his theoretical premise. When this work is installed inertly in an empty, white walled gallery space, its supposed "autonomy" and "universal validity" is visually and materially heightened, while its relationships to social or material contexts is erased.
In his 2009 essays, “Painting Beside Itself” and “Institutional Responsibility”, David Joselit implicitly, though fairly apolitically echoes this reasoning, lauding certain contemporary "formalist" works that address and render explicit their embeddedness in various social and material fabrics. This so-called ‘transitive’ work is characterized by its ”capacity to hold in suspension the passages internal to a canvas, and those external to it.” Because these transitive works manifest their embeddedness in various socio-material networks, he claims that they evade the ‘reification trap’, wherein the art object embodies commodification and ownership. Similar distaste for the primacy of the object pervades Joselit’s “Institutional Responsibility”, in which he argues that “‘Institutional Critique,’ as we know it, is obsolete” because it has “traditionally targeted … objects while minimizing or overlooking altogether [institutions’] human dimension”. Though I admire Joselit’s investment in artworks that actively embody their relationships to larger social and material contexts, I question the capacity of these transitive works to effectively evade the reification trap. He claims that this trap is epitomized by the artwork held in a collection, and either inertly exhibited or held privately in storage, wherein it embodies and “crystallize[s] a particular social relation”, namely the unique commodity status of the canonized art object. Though the transitive work renders the work’s social/contextual embeddedness explicit, it does not appear to actively subvert the formalist values or social structures that ultimately underscore its commodity status. Nevertheless, Joselit’s recurrent notion of ‘reification’ and his investment in the artwork’s relationship to social fabrics echo The German Ideology.
This resonance between Joselit and The German Ideology speaks to Marx’s prescient grasp on bourgeois intellectual production. Further, it confirms the modernist/formalist paradigm’s filial relationship to German idealism, that exemplar of bygone, unrepentant bourgeois heroism. Though the generalized modern formalist view, which grounds the artwork in the autonomous object is situated dialogically opposite the view locating art in the idea, both views coexist inextricably on the same paradigmatic continuum, founded upon Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics. Hegel’s appeal to the "pure" idea is a characteristically bourgeois abstraction that reverberates throughout western modernist art criticism, namely the notion that transcendent ideational purities exist, and precede all social and material life. Hegel evaluates various artistic traditions with respect to this idealism, advancing a historical and cultural hierarchy that unsurprisingly trivializes non-western art. Formalism is easily attributable to Kantian aesthetics, whose notion of the disinterested, universally valid aesthetic judgment grants an absolute primacy to abstract visuality, privileging it over concerns of everyday material and social needs. This view essentially conceives of the aesthetic judgment and the artwork explicitly in opposition to the realm of everyday material and social life. These aesthetics maintain a firm grip on contemporary exhibition practices, wherein the artwork is framed as an autonomous visual and ideational entity that transcends particular circumstances. The formalist ‘white-cube’ operates almost as if in explicit and deliberate service to these aesthetics, by visually purporting the art object’s autonomous existence and cordoning off the art-object space from the socio-material realm in service of the artwork’s "purity".
Marx describes the dominant class; inclination to ”detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute them to an independent existence, [and] ignore the individuals and world conditions which are [their] source”. Bourgeois ideology is therefore doubly pernicious -- in its particular appeal to the abstract, it functionally obscures the hegemony that necessarily precedes it, as if to imply its values are immortal, natural and immovable. The white-cube epitomizes this bourgeois appeal to universal validity as it grants the artwork its supposed autonomous primacy, while paradoxically imbuing it with an inordinate, arbitrary value in the art market. Though the gallery most obviously suppresses that which might distract from the art object’s visuality, it also renders invisible the circumstances that precede the art object’s life in the gallery space. The exhibition tradition, like any other bourgeois ideology, appeals to ‘universality’ by constructing an artificial vacuum that purports neutrality. The space implies the artwork’s eternal value and obscures the labor of installation by visually and physically detaching it from the circumstances that precede its production and exhibition. The space attributes the art object to an independent existence, and cements its frozenness in a privileged class of expensive objects, appreciated by the culturally literate and collected by the extremely wealthy. The white cube (and its sustained predominance) is little more than a bourgeois farce, forcibly implying the art object’s transcendent qualities while paradoxically reducing it to commodity status within what is little more than a privileged, high-end boutique.
The white-cube gallery also obscures and "neutralizes" the physical space immediately surrounding its walls, erasing the social and material life that precedes the artwork’s production and installation. Further, it hides the privileged social engagements through which an artwork is curated into the space. Joselit cites RH Quaytman’s works as exemplars of the ‘transitive’ quality, for materially, visually and or kinesthetically manifesting their connections to certain social and material networks. Quaytman’s installation at the Orchard Gallery in 2008, for example, presented her abstract panels in a fairly unorthodox way. The installation encouraged the viewer to rifle through a series of artworks, which were held in storage, on a shelf below an open wall space. The blank wall space was made available for the viewer to temporarily install selected works from the series, rendering kinesthetic the kind of physical and intellectual labor that precedes an exhibition, processes that are traditionally privileged and private. The series of panels included photographic content shot in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the neighborhood immediately surrounding the gallery, in an effort to address the gallery’s relationship to a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. This specific, local content subverted one of the ‘white-cube’ gallery’s traditional purposes, to divorce the ‘art space’ from the world immediately outside its walls. Although Quaytman’s installation effectively challenged certain functions of the formalist gallery space, it offers a mere symbolic evasion of the "reification trap" of commodification. Further, her practice doesn’t seem directed at destabilizing the art object’s commodity status, and for the purposes of this essay, offers little more than an arcane self-reflexivity.
In his 2008 essay Dispersion, Seth Price argues that “Immersing art in life runs the risk of seeing the status of art – and with it, the status of the artist — disperse entirely.” He goes on to cite Dan Graham’s reflections on running a gallery, observing that “in order to be defined as having value, that is as ‘art’, a work had only to be exhibited … written about and reproduced as a photograph in an art magazine.” Though Graham seems aware of his tenuous language, his momentary conflation of the art’s “value”, its exhibition, and its very ontological status reflects the extent to which the western art world has almost unquestioningly embraced the art object’s commodity status. The notion that the artwork’s ‘art’ status depends on its exhibition in its ‘professional arena’, the gallery or museum, (which Graham compares to a scientific journal) suggests the dangerous slippages between a rarified consumer culture and the ‘professional’ space for art reception. Nevertheless, it is a troublingly common idea, even amongst many left leaning artists, that an artist who makes a living exhibiting and selling their work in New York or Los Angeles is somehow especially talented. This blind subservience to the market and the extremely wealthy collector has so pervaded the western art world that the collector’s rarified consumer desire becomes the metric by which an artist’s very career is evaluated. And as long as artists and critics accept the "white cube" — be it in a gallery or a museum — as the ‘natural’ home for the art object, artistic production and reception will operate as mere accessories to inordinate wealth. Regardless of an artist or curator’s intent, artwork presented in this formalist space, which signifies exclusion and commodification, will be continually drained of its contextual meaning and moreover, of any anti-capitalist political thrust.
- Sheikh, Simon. “Positively White Cube Revisited.” E-Flux Journal #3 (2009)
- Marx, The German Ideology, 178.
- Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” 129.
- Ibid, 132.
- Joselit, “Institutional Responsibility” 109.
- Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” 132. a
- Marx, The German Ideology, 169.
- Price, Seth. Dispersion, 6.
Danica Radoshevich is an MFA candidate at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Art in St. Louis. She spends her time parsing out the sublime, fearsome, haunted American West through painting and installation.