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The Institution of the Neo-Avant-Garde, the End of Art and the New Postpsychological Rethorics

Peter Tzanev

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In the introduction to his book ‘Deconstructing Installation Art’[1] the British art historian Graham Coulter-Smith says that in the 1990’s installation goes ahead as a leading trend in postmodern art, replacing the previously dominant style of postmodern ‘appropriation’.

As a reason for this development Coulter-Smith sees the three fundamental characteristics that the art of installation includes: 1) striving to create a more direct interaction between the spectator and the work of art; 2) the specific feature of the installation to present fragments to the viewer, which must be studied and arranged in a manner which ‘activates’ him; 3) developing a strategy, which deconstructs the traditional concepts of art work.

Coulter-Smith relates the above-stated three characteristics to the three major artistic discourses in the first half of the 20th century, namely, expressionism, abstraction and the transgressive aesthetics of Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. Exactly the neo-avant-garde practices associated primarily with the third discourse turn into the basis of the modern art of installation. Coulter-Smith offers as a summary term for this third discourse the term ‘deconstructive art.’ [2] According to him the first generation of deconstructive art involves the transgressive aesthetics of Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism, which in the 1960’s is further developed by the New Realism, Fluxus, Pop art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, Land art, Performance and Conceptual art. The third generation of deconstructive art appears in the late 1970's and early 1980's with the different postmodern techniques of appropriation. The current domination by the deconstructive art as an international style according to Coulter-Smith changes the very definition of deconstruction, displacing it from the forms of transgression to the forms of the game.

As long as Coulter-Smith seeks ideological explanation and a certain formal logic in the development and establishment of installationism as a leading art trend in contemporary art, the book by the British researcher Claire Bishop ‘Installation Art: A Critical History’[3] offers an insight into the history of installationism which is not based only on the ideas, methods and forms, but mainly on the psychological experiences of the viewer.

Bishop organizes her book around four psychological models that structure the experience of the viewer. Each of these four models suggests a different type of subject, which in turn provokes a different kind of art.

The first part of the book which is entitled ‘The Dream Scene’ presents the classic psychoanalytical model inspired by the theories of Sigmund Freud, which are fundamental to Surrealism. The International Surrealism Exhibition in 1938 has a paradigmatic role in the development of this type of installations which attempt to immerse the viewer in a psychologically absorbing, dream-like environment. The second part of the book entitled ‘Heightened Perception’ examines the impact of the phenomenological psychology in 1960’s on Minimalist art and the type of installation art which it generates. The third part, which is called ‘Mimetic Engulfment’, discusses the influence of structural psychoanalysis and psychological models of subjective disintegration on the development of installationism in the 1970's and 1980's. The fourth part of the book which is titled ‘Activated Spectatorship’ examines the contemporary forms of installation and the place of the viewer as a political subject in the context of the critical theory. Namely the fourth model, which attempts to activate the viewer as a political subject is the most controversial in terms of existing theoretical models of interpretation. [4]

Bishop’s book, which is extremely interesting with its research methodology, shows that in the early 21 century the art history can successfully use psychological approaches to art, both as an explanatory context, and polemical rhetoric.

There is no doubt that certain kind of psychological approaches to art can be found in art forms and art theories that avoid or openly reject any psychological horizon as an object of analysis. For example the question of most postpsychological rhetoric is whether art discourse with no subject psychology is possible. This issue, however, quite logically causes psychological interest in everything that calls for a ‘psychological’ exclusion of the subject from the field of art.

[1] Coulter-Smith, G. Deconstructing Installation Art. CASIAD Publishing, 2006.

[2] In the 1980s art theorists experimented with terms such as the ‘antiaesthetic’ (Foster 1983) and ‘transgressive art’, but these labels never attained the generic scope of the terms ‘abstraction’ and ‘expressionism’, similarly even the promising term ‘postmodern art’ that dominated discussions of art during the 1980s gave way at the turn of the millennium to a somewhat feeble recourse to the now historical term ‘conceptual art’ (Coulter-Smith, 2006).

[3] Bishop, C. Installation Art: A Critical History. London: Tate Publising, 2005.

[4] One of the most influential models of interpretation, which tries to explain the active participation of the audience in the development of contemporary art is connected with the name of the French theorist Nicolas Bourriaud and his 'relational aesthetics', which deals with art as a reality of human interactions in social contexts (see Bourriaud, N. Postproduction. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002 and Bourriaud, N. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Presses du reel, 2002). Bourriaud proposes a theoretical model in which the museum art of 'autonomous symbolic space' is opposed to 'art as a laboratory for human contact', the completed art object is opposed to the ‘project-based work-in-progress’, the art as a market product is opposed to the art as a marketing service. Bishop in turn sees in the subject of relational art an identity protected from social antagonism, which is rather a product of inner institutional experiments with the existing exhibition conventions than a real political subjectivity (Bishop, C. Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October, 110 2004).

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