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Breaking the Contract

The Duchampian revolution leads not to the liberation of the artist from work, but to his or her proletarization via alienated construction and transportation work. In fact, contemporary art institutions no longer need an artist as a traditional producer. Rather, today the artist is more often hired for a certain period of time as a worker to realize this or that institutional project.

— Boris Groys

When his readymades entered the space of art, Duchamp effectively rearranged the contract between the exhibition and the work of art into what we now accept as the status quo, liberating the artist from the laws of traditional taste by breaking open a space within the exhibition for artists to work—or, more precisely, to think. In a wily chess move, the presentation of industrial objects as art freed the artist from manual labor and allowed simple spatial and temporal arrangements within an exhibition to release a dynamic cosmology in which the ontological and epistemological foundations of art itself could be simultaneously made and unmade. This advanced the position of the artist enormously; he or she became free to do and exhibit anything, and the institution was thus expected to respect the will of the artist by staying out of the way.

But there was a high price to pay for the total sovereignty Duchamp gained for the artist, and this is only becoming clear almost a century after Duchamp exhibited his fountain: Duchamp’s liberated artist could only appear when sanctioned by an art institution. In other words, the basic condition allowing the artist to produce whatever he or she pleased was that the liberated artistic gesture must only appear in sanctioned spaces of art. This has likewise given enormous authority to art institutions, which are in turn just as responsible for producing art as artists themselves. From a white cube in New York to a remote Nepalese mountaintop, the sanctioning forces of the art world are the sole enabler of art, but also the artist’s ball and chain.

Read the full article here.