Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser

Alex Starace, MA student, Program in Museum Studies, NYU
Museum Highlights: a Gallery Talk. Performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989

Andrea Fraser’s new book Museum Highlights is quite depressing – and I mean that as a compliment. Fraser, an artist and writer, bases her work on the idea that contemporary artistic practice should expose and change the institutional hierarchies and self-interests of the art world. Many of her critiques are scathing. In her essay, “It’s Art When I Say It’s Art, or…” Fraser even admits that “my stomach turns every time I reread this essay,” (43) because she can come to no other conclusion than that the deep-down aspirations of artists are always oriented towards gaining as much authority, recognition, and legitimacy as possible. It’s a decidedly unromantic view of the art world, yet the more one reads of Fraser’s book, the more convincing she becomes. She’s clearly done her homework and, as an artist, she has access to museums, curators, collectors, and dealers in a way that many of us can only dream of. A series of her essays, published in one volume, comprise Museum Highlights (edited by Alexander Alberro) – some are transcripts from performance works she has done, others are pieces of literature written as part of an art work, while still others are critical texts she has published in various magazines.

Heavily influenced by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Fraser refers to conventional artistic practice as cultural production, in both symbolic and material forms. She points out that successful artists form a middle-class community that has an interest in maintaining the status of their particular modes of artistic technique. It is through this status (or myth of the artist) that a community of artists makes a living, that collectors (by owning the art works) gain symbolic status as aesthetes, and that museums retain their hegemonic cultural dominance. Fraser sees the (relatively) recent revolutions in the art world such as avant-garde, minimalism, and post-modernism as fairly ineffectual. What began as an eschewal of authority, materiality, and commodification ended up as merely a battle between competing groups of artists as to which group gets to be the venerated (and commodified) cultural producers. While this may not have been the intent, this has, in the end, been the result – skill in technique and rarity of the work used to be what was prized, whereas now references to other works, temporality, and the “authenticity” of “capturing a moment” in art history are what are now prized by artists, collectors, and museums.
Fraser explains how this happens through her theory of homologies, which she adapted from Bourdieu. Different systems (political, institutional, artistic) all have similar hierarchies and self-interests, and so when one group, for example artists who have traditionally been ignored, want to change their status, they appeal to political and institutional interests that can elevate them. But never do the artists change the relationships between the systems – rather, members within each system just reverse roles: those artists that were ignored by institutions get elevated at the expense of the previously elevated artists, while factions with aligning political and institutional interests in the other systems serve themselves. The relationships between (and within) institutions remain similar. The only difference is that people with slightly different outlooks (but identical institutional views) gain control. It’s a situation where every system (political, institutional, and artistic) is fighting internally to maintain control of itself. An example from Fraser: she’s frequently asked why, if she’s an artist who is critical of museums, she keeps getting commissions from museums to criticism them. How can this be? And how can she be as critical as she believes she is, if she makes a living off the very institutions she purports to criticize? It took her a while to figure out the answer: within the institutions there are battles raging, and while she may not please all (or even most) of the members (particularly not board members and traditionalists) there are employees (usually curators and social activists) who sympathize with her and want more control. Therefore, she gets commissions.
But does she end up changing the institutions she criticizes? Or is she just another artist who is rearranging without changing? That’s an open question. However, her insights into the situation are both impressive and important. They make their apotheosis in the essay “A ‘Sensation’ Chronicle,” in which she analyzes the competing interests in the controversy surrounding the 1999 exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Ironically, though, Fraser’s weakest pieces are those that are transcripts from her performance works. In these performances, she takes on a persona (either herself as an artist, or, in the case of the “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” the fictional docent Jane Castleton) and then gives a talk/tour to interested visitors of the museum. In these talks, she rarely uses her own words. Instead, she meticulously researches each institution and her talk consists of a disparate string of excerpted quotes about the institution. These quotes are taken from a variety of viewpoints and types of texts. The intended result is cacophony of competing voices that expose the absurdities and true interests of the museum. The results do not achieve this. Her technique, which is borrowed (intentionally or not) from little-known author Paul Metcalf (who has written brilliant novels using only appropriated first-person texts, most notably Waters of the Potowmack) doesn’t come across. In her performances, the arrangement of her quotes is jumbled, confusing, and irreverent to the point of silliness. Furthermore, her excerpts are so brief that one gets no sense of their context.
Regardless, the book as a whole is powerful. Fraser’s greatest strength lies in observing what-seems-it-should-be-the-obvious, and then explicating its meaning in an original and thoughtful manner. For example, she writes about the myth that only artistic genius gets museumified: “…Of course this is not the case. Museums have been built and must be filled. Critics and curators are trained and have an interest in being employed, gallerists need new art to show and sell. Investments have been made and the field must reproduce itself.” (157) and then goes on to describe how artists provide the service of art that allows the field to reproduce itself, and what it means. If this topic interests you, then this book comes highly recommended.