New York

Art Speech: A Symposium on Symposia

Andrea Liu
September 9, 2011

“Art Speech: A Symposium on Symposia” at The Museum of Modern Art, organized by art historian James Elkins and conceptual artist Pablo Helguera (MoMA’s Director of Adult and Academic Programs) was an originally conceived, if unwieldy, event. The two-day program sought to demystify, deconstruct and anatomize “issues surrounding art speech.” As institutional critique in the ‘70s sought to question the presumed neutrality of the art institution, in a provocatively self-reflexive vein, “Art Speech” attempted to interrogate the assumptions of its own speech.

The symposium began with artist Carey Young’s presentation of her work Speechcraft, a flat-footed video of episodes taped at the frumpy public speaking organization the Toastmasters Club. Not intellectual, not creative, not even strictly discursive or essayistic, the practice of making speeches at the Toastmasters Club is a formulaic exercise predicated on conventional, petit-bourgeois notions of rhetorical “success”: confidence, three-point argument, strong closing. In the typically laconic vein of conceptual art, Young placed the burden on the audience to perceive or imbue radicality in the formally spare and deadpan work.

Carey Young, Speechcraft, 2007; performance; commissioned by Modern Art Oxford; ©Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Following on the heels of Young’s video of the “readymade” Toastmasters Club, Monika Szewczyk from the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam critiqued MoMA’s audio guides, making the intriguing observation that “words blind us to what we’ve seen.” As Young declared the Toastmasters debate society a “readymade,” one could construe the MoMA audio guides as an institutional “readymade” topic for Szewczyk’s critiques (at the risk of expanding the term “readymade” into diffuse elasticity). Szewczyk was critical of “smooth description” that excludes or flattens the thought process whereby one came to the description, instead presenting the interpretation of a work as a fait accompli with an overdetermined voice of authority. Szewczyk posed the provocative question, “Where do we start from when we project onto the viewer?” and lamented that audio guides did not give the audience a sense of agency.

In the handout that was given to conference-goers as they entered the auditorium, a seven-page dense discussion amongst panel participants about “art speech” topics, Stanford University professor of English Marjorie Perloff voices a similar sentiment when she complains that docent museum guides’ talks are “only laudatory, never evaluative,” finding gallery lectures “stifling.” The only speaker who was not speaking from prepared notes, Perloff nevertheless exuded more acumen, charisma and effortless virtuoso intelligence than the rest of the two days’ panelists combined.

On the second day of panels, a group called Our Literal Speed (OLS) staged an intervention through their lecture-as-performance. Grounding their work in a lineage of conceptual art and institutional critique from the ‘70s, OLS describes their hybrid genre of conference, performance and lecture as a commentary on how art speech has become a type of art itself.1 Unfortunately, none of this criticality or densely discursive orientation was conveyed through their performance, which was crackling with sassier-than-thou one-liners of postmodern jargon. Adopting a glib, media-savvy blitzkrieg approach, they were accompanied by two or three videographers in tank tops, completely oblivious to the rest of the panel, conspicuously waiting in the wings to document the spectacle. Furthermore, the performers planted audience members to actually sit in the audience and laugh uproariously (and unironically) at their rapier wit. Perhaps something was lost in the shuffle I did not grasp, but it came across as a clusterfuck of self-promotion merely gesturing towards strategies of avant-garde criticality. Their comment that we are still stuck in “a nineteenth-century realism of art speech” was provocative and rich; it was perhaps one of the most interesting things said in the entire conference. However, there was little in the spirit of their performance that would lead one to believe they were situated to investigate or develop that thought. As such, a rapid fire of jaunty postmodern deconstructive quips seemed like gimmicks with which to bolster the performance without giving any flesh or bones to the ideas behind these witticisms.

Promotional image for Our Literal Speed at MoMA's "Art Speech: A Symposium on Symposia," 2011; courtesy Matthew Jesse Jackson.

They were about as remote from the austere work of Art & Language (whom they supposedly seek to emulate) as possible. Even looking at the OLS website one sees cloyingly perfect hipster-coiffed overproduced photographs of themselves, in contrast to Art & Language’s plain black and white pamphlets from the ‘70s. Giving physical form (whether in a performance or an art object) to ideas like “demystifying the social relations that make possible the performativity of art speech” must be extremely challenging, and most artists would not even attempt it. Yet I am not convinced that the approach of the OLS performance grasps the ramifications of the questions they appear to be posing.2 Rather than Art & Language, I would say the vacuity of OLS performers reminded me more of Big Art Group, which also seeks to pose radical questions but ends up revivifying all the glibness they seek to critique.3

In a Q & A session following the performance, panelist Ellen Levy of Pratt characterized OLS as “theater,” while another panelist characterized them as “parody.” It appears that OLS’s postmodern refusal of medium specificity—of anti-performance, anti-lecture and anti-theater—was lost on two of the panelists, who interpreted them not through the lens of a post-structuralist breakdown of forms, but recuperated them into more crusty, old-fashioned theatrical tropes of narrative, mimesis, and satire. 

On the other side of the spectrum Charles Altieri, professor of English at UC Berkeley, delivered an almost sentimental talk about the function of art criticism. Altieri claimed the critic should “universalize how to respond to art” to an imagined public, and that a lecture was a “social moment that is shared.” Sunny and uplifting, this lecture seemed like a gaping anachronism: apparently for Altieri the decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with their theoretical enunciations of the death of the author, the arbitrary nature of the sign, and the instability of the text, have not yet happened.

The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. Entrance at 53rd Street. Photo © 2011 Timothy Hursley. Courtesy MoMA.

This symposium seemed to grapple with an identity crisis between the deconstructive methods of questioning the conventions, social hierarchies, and ossified norms involved in talking and writing about art, and an enactment of those very norms, conventions and hierarchies. If institutional critique in the ‘70s succeeded because artists were critiquing institutions from a position of presumed autonomy, this event featured institutional speech attempting to critique itself before it has even remotely established a space (whether mental, social, ontological, or artistic) outside of the academic institutionality it seeks to critique. Artists are more “contract players” in that they float in and out of institutions: some use them, some inhabit them, some discard them—but innately they have more hostility and creative skepticism towards them. Academia, on the other hand, is too existentially indebted to the edifice of its own institutionality to ever remotely sow the seeds of its own subversion. All that is left is for the conference to drown in the density of its own discursive goals and be tripped up by the labyrinthine nature of its own self-reflexivity.

Despite all this intensive navel-gazing, a gaping omission of the conference was the issue of gender and how gender affects voice, the authority to speak, and the historical male-domination of art production and art speech by men. That being said, the conference must be lauded heartily for trying: interesting failures are better than predictable, boring and safe successes.

As a suggestion, if one were to do the conference again, rather than several disjointed presentations coming from different historical ideologies about what the conference is even about, one might make a “task force” create clusters of basic elementary questions by which panelists could establish some common foothold. These might include whether they seek to overturn the hierarchy between viewer and art speaker and what are the social conditions that make art speech possible.

  • 1. Hopkins, Brandon. “Full Speed Ahead: A Postmodern Conference Analyzes Itself.” Chicago Weekly Online, April 30, 2009.
  • 2. OLS addressed this collapse of art and art speech throughout their performance. Two noteworthy soundbytes include: “Art history and criticism circulate on the same plane of existence as the art they interpret” and “To talk about art is to make art, especially in an era when increasingly fewer works of art are material objects.” The question I might pose to Matthew Jackson, founder of OLS, regarding the first statement is to give concrete examples of what “plane of existence” is it that the two increasingly cohabitate. Art criticism and art are still very separate, as you can easily witness in any sphere of academic departments, artist residency stipulations, hiring practices of art institutions and museums, the organization of grants and who is eligible to apply for them, etc. It was sweeping absolutist pronouncements like these that they hyped into “sexy” apocalyptic one-liners to give their performance the superficial sheen of self-importance without having much substantive thinking to bulwark the one-liners.
  • 3. Big Art Group is a performance ensemble founded by Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson. Similar to OLS, they seek to fragment the unity of time and space of traditional theater, to occupy an “interstitial space” between traditional disciplinary lines aspiring towards an experimental hybridity. Also similarly to OLS, they falter. Rather than creating any “cultural transgression” of destabilizing disciplinary boundaries (the way Fluxus, Dada, Black Mountain College, or even Platform for Pedagogy does), their free-for-all seems to descend instead into a full-of-sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing type of radio static. This is NOT, however, an argument in favor of maintaining ossified disciplinary boundaries, as many neoconservatives would like to recuperate this critique into a justification, indeed a reaffirmation, of the need for classical disciplinary boundaries. I do NOT advocate upholding traditional disciplinary boundaries (for more on this see Instead, this critique is merely a cautionary warning that a postmodern refusal of disciplinary boundaries can be misappropriated by artists who may or may not grasp the richness of what this would entail and instead hijack this into a novelty-for-novelty’s-sake prank.
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