“With the institutionalization of contemporary art, there is a headlong rush to transgression”

maintenance – in his book, contemporary art modelSociologist Natalie Heinich describes a system that lives in a vacuum that views artwork as a financial product and uses museums as art certification.

Natalie Heinich is a Ph.D. from EHESS after completing a dissertation under the supervision of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist and specialist in contemporary art. she is an author Contemporary Art Model, Folio2022.


Le Figaro: In your book, you propose to consider contemporary art no longer as an art genre, but as a new paradigm. what is the difference ? What did this change?

Natalie Hench. – The first thing to keep in mind is to consider contemporary art not as a period but as a literary genre. This is what I actually showed in my first book on contemporary art The Contemporary Art Triple Game, It was published in 1998 by Minuit. I left this temporal approach, which is the most common, by explaining that contemporary art has characteristics not limited to the fact that it is produced at a particular moment in time. Thus, in the present period, works that relate at least to the so-called modern art – even classical art – can be produced and exhibited as much as contemporary art. Conversely, typical works of so-called contemporary art may have been produced in earlier periods.

So the first deviation from the concept of common sense was to move away from the perception of time. Then, going deeper into the question, I understood that the idea of ​​\u200b\u200bthe artistic genre is not enough because it is too limited by the formal characteristics of works, as for the classic genres of still life, portrait, landscape, history painting, etc. However, a much broader idea is needed to understand the way in which works are circulated in contemporary art, because the organization of the entire art world is completely modified there. It is this extension beyond work, towards the processes of production, mediation, and reception that I have tried to organize in the concept of form, which I borrowed from the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.

This public sector of contemporary art allows artists to make a career in institutions by barely passing through the commercial circuit.

Natalie Heinich

The development of artists’ careers and fame takes place jointly through the commercial sector and by institutional selection. Globalization and contemporary art one?

No, because there is contemporary art that is not globalized, and there are forms of globalization that have nothing to do with art. More precisely, an important institutional dimension in contemporary art is present in most Western countries but especially developed in France. In the 1980s, the policy led by Jack Lang made it possible to create a large number of institutions dedicated to contemporary art: FAC, art centers, contemporary art museums. This public sector of contemporary art allows artists to work in institutions by barely passing through the commercial circuit, which is not often the case in other countries.

How do you explain that the public sector here “laying its hand” on contemporary art?

France was at the forefront of heritage policy in the nineteenth century, already in public institutions. It was also innovated in the 1960s with André Malraux’s policy, particularly of cultural centers, and the idea that the arts should be dismantled and made more accessible. He also became the former Minister of State for Fine Arts and Ministry of Culture. And then we’ve had a whole series of initiatives to aid artistic creativity via the 1% system (since the 1950s), public commissions, scholarships and aid of all kinds… This tradition of cultural intervention is linked to the idea that the state should support innovative businesses, businesses of interest. General because it is high quality, as long as the market is unable to absorb it and allow movement. In fact, when we are dealing with original and avant-garde businesses, they take a certain time to appreciate them sufficiently to be able to make profits, and thus the state will replace the market which is not able to support the innovative proposals economically. This principle of assistance to innovative creativity obviously has its advantages, but it also sometimes has harmful effects due to over-institutionalization, as pointed especially to Mark Fumaroli in his time. But initially, the goal was to help innovative artists and promote cultural democracy.

Once the offender is recognized and encouraged by the institutions, he must become more transgressive in order to remain transgressive.

Natalie Heinich

You describe a system that lives in a vacuum, supported in part by an international category above ground, which considers artwork a financial product and uses museums as an art degree. Isn’t it ironic when one wants to be transitive?

This is the idea that I developed in it Triple game Speaking of “permissive irony” once the offender is recognized and encouraged by the institutions, he must become more transgressive in order to remain transgressive. Thus, there is a kind of reckless rush to transcendence, which can be clearly seen in the extremes of a certain number of artists’ proposals – this is what sociologists usually call perverse influence. Hence, since the 1990s in France, the so-called ‘crisis of contemporary art’, i.e. the pernicious competition of contemporary art not only by right-wing, reactionary or conservative people, but also by people from the left but who are critical, in the name of Art Nouveau. (not classical art), what they consider to be the excesses of “contemporary art”. This is a completely new composition, because we are no longer in conflict between the ancients and the moderns.

Do you think this headstrong rush you describe will continue, or will contemporary art organize itself? Would not a certain fatigue on the part of the spectator lead to a return to “puritanism”?

It all depends on the spectators, because it is clear that there is not only one type of spectator. Depending on your position regarding contemporary art, you don’t have the same view at all. Those who stay away from it have the feeling that it’s always the same thing, always the same kind of transgression, and that in the end it goes in circles. On the other hand, those who are within this world see beyond all boundaries of differences, because they are and what matters to them, and therefore have a sense of renewal. This is what I pointed out in the conclusion of the book: for some it is art in crisis because it cannot be renewed forever, we cannot invent new forms of transgression all the time, while for others it never stops renewing itself. But they are very different types of spectators, and this does not prevent this world from continuing to work: there are always art critics, curators, curators, gallerists, collectors. So, in truth, the model of contemporary art is not exhausted, even if from the outside one feels that the repertoire has not been replenished.

Contemporary art also refers to the decline of galleries, in favor of galleries, temporary installations… As a result, transactions are somewhat hidden…

What happens is not a significant decrease in exhibitions, because there are always a lot of them in galleries and museums, but a decline in painting salons. The world of modern art was built on the salons of painting, salons of impressionists, independents, salon of ottomans, etc. Where collectibles and exhibitors discover new artists. Today’s painting salons have become completely unqualified because they are mainly dedicated to modern art, and therefore uninteresting to specialists in contemporary art. What has become very important is the exhibition in galleries or in museums (or in art centers for those more in the public sector) and, above all, the holding of biennial exhibitions. Galleries are commercial because works are sold there, while biennials are purely cultural, and works are not for sale there, they are structures dependent on public authorities that allow curators to present what they consider to be the most interesting in current art. This is the system that has succeeded in the salon system.

There is also a contemplative dimension that appeared in the nineties, and I explain it in the third chapter of contemporary art model Why the new world of merchants, born out of money, and the money of capitalism, has allowed great fortunes to emerge among the young and relatively uneducated, who need to spend their money and do so by investing in a certain type of contemporary art, is immediately understandable – hence the particular fashion By young British artists, Jeff Koons, etc., it has a meditative dimension that is hardly hidden. However, buying works for money is frowned upon in the art world: it is an investment that has never been shown as such, and that has always been seen as the fruit of a cultivated bait. From a financial point of view, it can play the role of an investment like any other, but its peculiarity should not be considered an investment. Furthermore, collectors that have been identified by exhibitors as having purely speculative reasoning are generally avoided. But this does not mean hiding deals, except in very specific cases of very high auction sales where the buyer does not know himself, perhaps for reasons related to a speculative strategy.

What the artist suggests is something temporary, from the arrangement of the display, as in installations, where the object is no longer worked.

Natalie Heinich

With contemporary art, we move from work to scenography. What does this change in our relationship to art?

The characteristic of contemporary artwork is that it incorporates not only the thing the artist proposes, if something, but also the context of its presentation, and its effects on context: it is a universal work, and beyond. The thing is, this is a big difference with the classic model and the modern model. This induces scenography in the sense that what the artist is proposing, more and more, is a temporary thing, from the arrangement of presentation, as in installations, where the work is no longer in the object as the object can enter rubbish once the installation is dismantled: it is in the device which the artist proposes, and is Similar in some cases to the forms of proposals associated with live performance. This is especially the case in the artist’s performance, which is within the confines of theater or dance. This shift towards scenography has all kinds of practical consequences, particularly the fact that institutions can pay an artist to create the installation, without buying the installation itself. There are all kinds of economic or practical adjustments, also connected with the question of the transfer of works, the question of insurance, restoration, part of this universal adjustment of the art world brought about by the model of contemporary art.

Natalie Heinich, Model of Contemporary Art, 2022, Gallimard, 480 p. Gallimard

Leave a Comment