The status of the Avant Garde has now been systematised into what Dave Hickey calls the ‘therapeutic institution’ – a self-propagating structure of academics, curators, critics and artists proclaiming arts goodness for the world.[i]
Artists increasingly attempt to function as antibodies of the cultural bloodstream; paying lip service to the progressive attempt to ‘normalise’ and correct the social ‘body’ which has reached a peak in recent years. The more fucked up the planet becomes the more the art world engages in the narrative of improvement and all things good to counteract and put things back in balance; contemporary art functioning as a kind of parental control to reign in the disobedient child.
This bodily metaphor of disease and sickness, clearly plays out in the spaces of the contemporary art world; Hickey goes on to talk about art as a medicine, something to take; ‘because its good for you.’ The belief in the intrinsic goodness of art, he declares, is simply like a ‘bad cult religion.’ Hickey calls for an art that is more like cocaine that gives us pleasure while intensifying our desires, and less like penicillin that promises to cure us.[ii]
Johanna Drucker recently took aim at the notion of artists on a mission of social improvement, stating: ‘The idea that the broken world could be fixed by fine art serving as the moral conscience of the culture and using a combination of intervention and provocation might be as ‘over’ as the tired recycling of formal and conceptual strategies from the inventory of contemporary art.’[iii]
All this goodness in the contemporary art world reaches well into the connective tissue of the culture industries: From university research clusters on sustainability to curators exploring environmental issues, to artists engaged in identity politics. The idea of contemporary art and social virtue is nothing new, but its rise is concurrent with the emergence of the artist PhD in Australia and the need to comply with ethics approval. My own university states: ‘Scholarly research activity has the potential to realize significant research and scientific gains, and to contribute enormously to human good.’ It would seem contemporary art has slowly transformed from a cultural industry to a wellness industry.
Joseph Beuys made the point ‘Art is a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation form a sick world to healthy one.’[iv] The problem with Beuys’s statement, like much art invested in a curative process is it implies that artists have power in the world, that artists have some special insight that others don’t.
The healing goodness of art finds its ultimate manifestation in the planned Marina Abramovic institute, where the Ambramovic method will be practiced. Involving a series of exercises for audiences to participate in, including long durational performances designed to increase audiences’ awareness of their physical and mental experience. The artist isn’t merely ‘present’ but now a bona fide healer of the people.
With artists, curators, researchers, and institutions working away busily like worker drones in the name of goodness and ‘healthy art’ or like miniature crew members of Fantastic Voyage, inside the body of culture repairing damage at every step of the way. What does it mean for contemporary artists to be aligned with all this goodness and social virtue? What happens when contemporary art is associated with a higher calling and engaged in a more important role? why is it expected that contemporary art behaves in this manner? when other modes of cultural production from movies to music do not and we certainly don’t expect them to function in a therapeutic mode.
It’s ok for a movie to be mind numbingly-stupid or violent or for music to be horrible and annoying, no one blinks an eyelid, but contemporary art must be ‘culturally worthy,’ it must operate as medicine and not sugar, and it must not be bad for you.
No doubt all this goodness in contemporary art is primarily about the perception of art having cultural value and worth which is clearly tied to political, funding and commercial agendas and artists dramatising their good intensions probably makes them feel good about it all.
Historically we have moved from the cliché of the irrational, mad and obsessive artist to the new cliché of the contemporary artist who is well-balanced, responsible, articulate and rational. The assumption that all artists are ‘good people,’ well-adjusted, and concerned for the greater good, part of a special and privileged knowledge fraternity, is clearly deluded. I am reminded by this every time I encounter art works of ‘social virtue’ – what is this institutionally approved, curator validated and audience accepted work actually doing? and what is it stake? – apart from producing a feedback loop of ‘goodness’ and a circle of worthiness between institution, curator, artist and the audience.
We are already surrounded by social institutions, like the medical industry, the environmental movement, and the Catholic church, all of whom are primarily engaged or at least pay lip service to the idea of ‘improvement.’ Do we also really need contemporary artists to be part of this narrative of working for the forces of good instead of evil? The world is in crisis and who you gonna call: the artists? Artists taking on board ‘big issues’ and widely accepted themes of social virtue in their work disturbingly functions as a kind of legitimization and validation of those practices; You are a serious and important artist because you are exploring serious and important themes.
The art gallery after all functions like a hospital, the contemporary well-lit clean white washed walls, the hushed silence, the silent, sterile, hygienic interiors, with their air of austerity. Even power outlets are covered over and painted white; nothing left to contaminate the purity of the gallery. The modernist white cube studios of art schools are the teaching wards of the therapeutic institution. The aim of the art school; to produce, well balanced, healthy artists who will go onto making a healthy contribution to the art world and society.
With scheduled studio visits, clipboard in hand, the visiting artists and staff identifies and diagnoses the problem and suggests a way to improve, before moving on to the next art school patient. Its called ‘practice’ after all, which the artist and lecturer alike are invested in a therapeutic role with the mission of repair and correction.
The contemporary art world and its sterile spaces and didactic panels are overseen by a curious species: the curator, (the curator according to Boris Groys is inherently related to the idea of ‘curing’ the image)[v] Curator’s essays on group shows, biennales and artist retrospectives increasingly frame themselves and the artists as ‘concerned’ global citizens on a mission to assist, correct and steer the world back on course. I personally had no idea artists and indeed curators had so much power.
This bodily metaphor of wellness extends outside of the art world to the entire contemporary detox movement; from liver cleansing diets, organic food to colonics; to rid the body of toxic materials and to purify the system. The contemporary art world positions its colonic irrigation probe onto the social body with an aim to return it to a state of balance free from contaminants and impurities. Healthy art for a healthy body.
However it would appear the natural state of the body is always sickness, never wellness, progressive GP’s refer to themselves as part of the ‘wellness industry,’ but who are they kidding? We are all on the road to being worm food, our cells are dying off at an alarming rate. There are more bacteria in the human body then there are healthy human cells. With this is mind art should stay sick, this is a more accurate role for art, one that is more in tune with the corporality of our own bodies. Art as a sickness, a disease, and a pathology probably reveals far more about our culture than art on a mission to cure.
What we really need however is art that is bad for you, that is wrong in its thinking, less Bob Geldof’s ‘feed the world’ and more Lux Interior of the Cramps. As Mike Kelley stated, the only social function of art is ‘to fuck things up’ ‘to fuck things up for the pure pleasure of fucking them up’ where arts currency is ‘purposeful purposelessness’. [vi]
Contemporary art needs to be a cancer, a raging disease, a tumorous lump on culture. Or to use a term of David Cronenberg’s a ‘creative cancer’, I’ll even settle for something less dramatic; art as a pesky cultural irritant, a stubborn rash that just won’t go away no matter how much ointment you put on it, like the North Queensland stinging tree producing a festering wound that just won’t heal or art that makes you feel like you are coming down with something, art that smells bad and makes you feel bad; anything to wash away all the goodness that’s going around like a flu virus.
What is needed is art that doesn’t look like art. I don’t want a didactic panel to explain the work and I certainly don’t need to see any more socially engaged practice, of art that is all about raising peoples consciousness, or attempting to highlight the injustices of the world, this territory is well and truly covered and is the new orthodoxy of contemporary practice. I want to take the conversation somewhere else. And finally, if so many artists are engaged in such themes, haven’t they solved the world’s problems by now and fixed things, so we can all just move on.
 FitzGerald, K. (2010) Volume: Writings on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture, Princeton University Press. p.164
2 Hickey, D. (1997) Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, Art issues press, Los Angeles
3 Drucker, J. (2014) After After, The White Review, http://www.thewhitereview.org/art/after-after-2/
4 Masters, G. Joseph Beuys: Past the Affable, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/beuys.html
5 Groys, B. Politics of Installation, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-installation
6 Kelley, M. (online video) on Art and Fucking Things Up