“The Readymade did not and was not able to address itself to depiction; its concern is with the object, and so if we were to classify it within the canonical forms it would be sculpture. But no-one who has thought about it accepts that a Readymade is sculpture. Rather it is an object that transcends the traditional classifications and stands as a model for art as a whole, art as a historical phenomenon, a logic, and an institution. As Thierry de Duve has so well demonstrated, this object designates itself as the abstraction ‘art as such’, the thing that can bear the weight of the name ‘art as such’. Under what de Duve calls the conditions of nominalism, the name ‘art’ must be applied to any object that can be legitimately nominated as such by an artist. Or, to be more circumspect, it is the object from which the name art cannot logically be withheld. The Readymade therefore proved that an arbitrary object can be designated as art and that there is no argument available to refute that designation.”
— from Depiction-Object-Event, Jeff Wall’s Hermes Lezing lecture, 2006.
It’s useful to consider Wall’s argument here in the light of an essay entitled “[Art] Museum” published by Ariella Azoulay in her book Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy:
“The prevalent assumption is that the value of exhibits is determined by other cultural agents, with the museum at most complementing or validating the process of consecration. In other words, there is a structural division of labor between the museum and other agents. (…) The museum itself conducts three institutionalized practices of representation that are the condition of existence of this division of labor: reproduction, catalogue, and artistic discourse. These practices of representation take an active part in confirming the exhibit’s standing as a closed unit of meaning and in reproducing the relation between themselves and the exhibit. They endow the exhibit with an additional dimension, as precise and faithful as possible, but this dimension always stands in relation to the original unit and must therefore remain eternally damaged, lacking, and thwarted. The museum space, reproduction, catalogue, and artistic discourse are institutions that by their very nature engender the exhibit’s standing as the original. But these practices and the museum space also function, as I’ve already noted, as a dwelling or instrument in the hands of the exhibit, and they present themselves as if they are subject to its mastery. According to need, walls shall be demolished or new ones built (to reorganize the museum space), photographic techniques will be improved or lighting systems installed (to preserve the faithfulness of the reproduction), enormous budgets will be raised (to produce a catalogue), or ancient writings and esoteric theories ransacked (the artistic discourse) — all to provide the exhibit with the appropriate conditions of visibility, display, and expression. The exhibit commands.”
Azoulay stresses here the discursive and customary nature of art – its fundamental relation to traditions of display and signification, which together help to produce the subject ‘Art’ as a discrete object of study. This object of study then engenders a stream of examples or ‘exhibits’ according to the conventions she outlines, so that reflexively anything can become ‘Art’ which follows the rubric of reproduction, catalogue and artistic discourse within the institutional framework of the museum. This last part is plainly pivotal: within the institutional framework of the museum, which establishes itself as the arbiter of the category it simultaneously creates and explores. The act of creating something as art is foreclosed by the techniques of its display, so that the art becomes a self-evident autonomous category and the essential determination of the museum appears to be in service to the object ‘which commands’. Azoulay continues: Continue reading