Failure, Revolution and Institutional Critique

Charnley, Kim (2016). Failure, Revolution and Institutional Critique. Art & the Public Sphere, 5(1) pp. 35–52.



In Revolutionary Time and the Avant-garde (2015), John Roberts argues that a ‘strange, morally tinged discourse of avant-garde failure’ tends to foreclose critical debate about the avant-garde. This article examines Roberts’s point through an investigation of the term ‘institutional critique’. According to Andrea Fraser, the distinctive critical politics of institutional critique are provided by its recognition of the failure pre-ordained by art’s institutional mediation. In order to problematize Fraser’s position, the article will focus on debates that took place in the journal The Fox, published for three issues between 1975 and 1976 by Art & Language, New York. The first use of the term ‘institutional critique’ in print came in this journal, though Art & Language are not conventionally included in the canon of institutional critique. Fraser’s institutional critique was connected to a simplification of the stakes involved in this term that came about through the writings of art critics associated with the journal October. This point is used to pose the problem that concludes the discussion: how might art history reflect upon the part it plays in stabilising the meaning of failure and neutralizing avant-gardes?

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